SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Five animal rights activists are facing more than 60 years in prison over allegations they took piglets from a farm in southern Utah.
The Utah Attorney’s General office filed charges against members of California-based Direct Action Everywhere Monday accusing them of stealing a pair of 3-week old pigs from a Smithfield Foods barn.
The group allegedly took a 360-degree virtual reality video of the March 2017 incident and promoted it online, as part of a tactic known as “open rescue.” Activists claim the practice saves individual ill or injured animals and also helps shine a light on abusive farming practices.
“We believe the actions we took are lawful,” said organization co-founder Wayne Hsiung, who is one of the men facing charges. He pointed to a legal doctrine that allows for the violation of minor law such as trespassing in order to prevent a greater harm, such as animal cruelty or risks to public safety.
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In an indictment filed with state court Monday, prosecutors said they used the group’s 11-minute video to identify the five men and the Smithfield barn from which the piglets were taken.
They also claimed that the investigators found pictures of the two animals at a Utah animal sanctuary on the activist group’s website, though they had been moved to a facility in Colorado for one to undergo hernia surgery.
The FBI obtained cellphone records that allegedly show the five men were in the area of the farm near Milford, approximately 210 miles (338 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City, when the piglets were taken last March, court papers claim.
The same five men were charged in early May with stealing turkeys from a different Utah facility. One of the men, Jonathan Frohnmayer, and another activist not charged Monday also participated in interrupting Gov. Gary Herbert’s pardoning of a Thanksgiving turkey in November, shouting “Show us all the barns!”
The men each face two felony counts of burglary, one felony count of theft, one felony count of a pattern of unlawful activity and a misdemeanor riot charge. The maximum penalty is 61 years in prison and a $42,500 fine.
“They absolutely are escalating and it’s to intimidate activists,” Hsiung said.
Smithfield’s website says the Virginia-based company is the world’s largest producer of pork and is committed to being the industry’s leader in caring for animals and assuring respectful and humane treatment of animals.
A company spokesman did not respond to an inquiry Monday.
Last July, a federal court struck down a Utah law banning secret filming at farm and livestock sites, claiming the restrictions were an unconstitutional violation of free speech. Activists have alleged that exaggerated charges against activists in the state are an end-run around that ruling.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Wayne Hsiung was not one of the men who participated in the Thanksgiving demonstration.