One night in March 2017, two animal rights activists entered a Smithfield-owned pig factory farm in Beaver County, Utah.
Paul Darwin Picklesimer and Wayne Hsiung, from the grassroots organization Direct Action Everywhere, weren’t planning on rescuing any animals that day, but they took in a camera to create a virtual reality experience of the conditions inside.
What they found was horrific. One seriously ill piglet was attempting to suckle from her mother’s nipple, which had been “torn to shreds.” As a result, the piglet wasn’t drinking milk, she was drinking blood.
They decided to rescue this piglet, as well as another from the farm. They took them to a vet, and then to a sanctuary, and named them Lily and Lizzie. Five years later, the activists were in court facing burglary and theft charges. The “Smithfield Trial” took place earlier this month. They were acquitted.
On a video call soon after the trial, Picklesimer spoke to Plant Based News (PBN) about that day on the farm, subsequent legal proceedings, and why they were willing to go to jail to give the pigs a chance at freedom.
The farm the activists entered – named Circle Four Farm – “processes” around one million animals each year. It’s one of the biggest pig facilities in the US, and just one of the thousands of factory farms owned by Smithfield Foods. Smithfield is one of the world’s largest pork producers.
Picklesimer found numerous dead and dying animals, and pigs across the farm were screaming. These screams were so loud that they could barely hear Hsiung talk. “As far as the eye can see there are living individuals trapped inside the smallest cages imaginable. The misery was pretty overwhelming, but I would keep looking through the lens of the camera, and that kind of helped me cope,” they tell PBN.
The activists entered the farm to investigate the use of gestation crates. These are two-foot by seven-foot metal cages that female pigs live in for up to five years of their life while pregnant. They don’t allow them any room to turn around. Following public outcry, Smithfield promised to ban them back in 2007, but the activists had an inkling that it hadn’t followed through with this. When they got in, their suspicions were confirmed.
Piglets aren’t supposed to be born in gestation areas, but some mothers had given birth due to what Picklesimer says was “negligence.” As a result of their size, some piglets were falling through the metal grates on the floor and getting trapped. The activists also saw a number of piglets having seizures, and farm workers had disposed of dead animals in a dumpster outside.
Warning: the image gallery below contains graphic content relating to animal abuse
Lily and Lizzie were close to death, and would only be worth around $42.20 each to Smithfield if they’d survived. Despite this, Picklesimer and Hsiung were pursued by the police, attorneys, and even the FBI for five years. They initially faced up to 60 years in prison, but this was later reduced to five years each.
“The industry that we’re up against in this movement is so powerful and has all the advantages you can imagine,” explains Picklesimer.
The footage of the farm that they filmed was published in the New York Times in July 2017. It presented a public relations nightmare for Smithfield, whose operation is dependent on secrecy. After the footage was released, some of the company’s locations were closed down due to breaches of regulations.
“What’s pretty obvious to most folks and that’s that Smithfield couldn’t care less about two sick piglets,” says Picklesimer. “What they do care about is that we recorded it.”
In court documents, Smithfield claimed it suffered reputational damage as a result of the footage. Prosecutors called it a “defamation campaign.”
Darwin and Picklesimer faced a number of challenges in the trial.
The judge didn’t allow any video of the farm to be used as evidence, as he thought it was irrelevant to the alleged “crime.” The only footage that could be shown was that featuring Lily and Lizzie. As a result, the jury did not see the conditions of Circle Four Farm as a whole.
The judge also insisted on a closed courtroom, referencing some of Direct Action Everywhere’s previous protests at basketball and football games as the reason why. “We’ve never disrupted a court proceeding ever, despite being in quite a few of them, so we found that wasn’t too fair,” says Picklesimer.
According to Picklesimer, the judge also determined that the jury would be anonymous. “This is something that happens in cases with the Mafia or organized crime, where they’re afraid of witness intimidation,” they said. The judge said that he made the decision because it was a highly publicized media case.
After the verdict was released, a Smithfield spokesperson released a statement saying they were “disappointed” by the result as it could encourage others to “vandalize” farms. Pickelsimer describes this assertion as “defamatory” to their organization.
“Frankly, it’s pretty upsetting to see the way they frame things. We’ve never vandalized a farm.”
“We leave no trace. Essentially we just go to these places and document what’s going on there, and if somebody’s really in dire need of help, and we feel that we can help them, then we’ll facilitate them escaping from that situation and try to get them to emergency care. But we don’t vandalize farms or do anything except show what’s happening.”
Lily and Lizzie
Thankfully, the story of the two piglets they rescued has a happy ending. Lily and Lizzie are still alive and well, living in a sanctuary in the US.
But things haven’t been easy for the pigs. Due to the huge legal response to their rescue, Lizzie was a victim of horrific mutilation by the FBI. They raided the sanctuary soon after the footage was released in the New York Times, and cut off part of her ear to use as “DNA testing.”
“She was a different person after that,” says Picklesimer. “But she has learned to trust people again, and learned to love again, and she’s back to her old self.” Thankfully, Picklesimer says that Lily and Lizzie are now “out there living their best life.”
“If I had gone to prison, at least I would have known that it was better in the prison than it would be on that factory farm. And just knowing that Lily and Lizzie have had the life that everybody deserves, regardless of species. That just warms my heart.”