The light of a headlamp slices through the dark, illuminating hundreds of sows, side by side in crates. In the pitch black, they shriek and squirm in clanking metal cages.
In March 2017, five activists entered Circle Four Farms, an industrial pig farm in Utah owned by Smithfield Foods, one of the largest pork producers in the world.
They faced the camera. They used their real names. And they posted their footage online.
They also took with them two piglets.
The animals—later named Lily and Lizzie—were sick and underweight, according to activist Wayne Hsiung. However, prosecutors argued it was stealing. The FBI raided two farm animal shelters in Utah and Colorado looking for the missing pigs, and state veterinarians cut two ear clippings from a piglet’s ear for DNA testing. Prosecutors charged all five activists with felony burglary and theft charges, but by the time of the trial in 2022, two men faced up to 10 years in prison. At one point, because of an enhancement for crimes committed against animal enterprises, the two faced a sentence of up to 60 years, according to numerous press accounts.
But in a shocking twist, the jury in Washington County, Utah, sided with the activists.
“They just let a guy who walked into a factory farm and took two piglets out without the consent of Smithfield walk out of the courtroom free,” Wayne Hsiung, activist and founder of the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, told reporters outside the courthouse moments after his acquittal. “If it can happen in southern Utah, it can happen anywhere.”
Five months later, two California women were found not guilty of misdemeanor theft after they took two sick chickens from a Foster Farms truck bound for a slaughterhouse.
These crusaders are part of the so-called “open rescue” movement, in which animal rights activists brazenly take animals from factory farm operations. Direct Action Everywhere—better known as DxE—is at the forefront of this movement in the United States, but it was pioneered by Patty Mark, founder of the Australian nonprofit Animal Liberation Victoria, which filmed her rescue of chickens from an egg factory in the 1990s. Activists around the world have followed suit, and groups like Compassion Over Killing, Animal Protection and Rescue League, Mercy for Animals, and Compassionate Action for Animals have helped orchestrate similar U.S.-based rescue operations.
Open rescuers argue they have a right to rescue animals in distress. Their arguments are modeled on U.S. state laws that protect rescuers from facing civil or criminal penalties if they break a window to rescue an animal in a hot car. While many states explicitly exclude livestock from these laws, some just say “animal” without defining the term further. In the Smithfield trial, Hsiung compared the pigs he took with dogs in a hot car “in need of urgent care.”
Yet while activists call it rescue, farms call it stealing. Both Smithfield, which is owned by the Hong Kong-based WH group that reported $24 billion in 2019 revenue, and Foster Farms declined to comment. Circle Four Farms did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement after the trial, Smithfield’s vice president of corporate affairs Jim Monroe called the verdict “disappointing” and said the activists are “part of an anti-meat movement determined to undermine livestock agriculture.” He also denied animals were mistreated.
‘I can’t stomach it’
The video clip is under a minute long. Two women run along a busy street, approach a Foster Farms truck, and pull out two chickens. The women, Alicia Santurio and former Baywatch actress Alexandra Paul, carry the flapping, squawking animals back to their car.
It might appear open-and-shut: The alleged criminal act was filmed. Santurio and Paul were charged and faced six months in jail.
So, what did the jury consider in finding them not guilty?
First, according to juror Stefanie Hurte, a lawyer had previously advised DxE that it was within activists’ rights to rescue animals they see in distress that need medical care, and though the Merced District Attorney filed charges, the defense argued that Santurio and Paul believed they were operating within the law when they took the chickens, .
Second, Hurte says she believes the prosecution failed to prove that Santurio and Paul had acted with the intention to deprive Foster Farms of value; rather, she says she believes they intended to help the animals, since they took them to a veterinarian at their own expense. One of the chickens later died, but the other was transferred to a sanctuary.
In the Smithfield case, certain jurors felt prosecutors failed to prove that the piglets have value, and the jury ruled the incident did not meet the criteria for theft, according to a transcript from a post-trial interview with a defense witness in the case. The prosecution estimated the pigs were worth $42.20 each, but since they were likely suffering from infections, the company would likely have discarded them, which would have rendered them valueless, certain jurors said post-trial.
Thus far, DxE’s “right to rescue” argument hasn’t been successful. In both of the above cases, DxE says the defense wasn’t allowed to argue that their actions were necessary to prevent a greater harm.
Even so, the defense conveyed their animal welfare message.
After the prosecutor in the Smithfield case compared the sick piglets to dented cans in the grocery store, one juror was “at a loss for words,” according to the post-trial interview with the defense witness. “The pig has a brain, it moves, it’s a living being, and you compare it with a dented can,” the juror said.
At the Foster Farms trial, juror Stefanie Hurte says she heard “heart-wrenching” stories about live animals being pulled from under a pile of dead ones and malfunctioning stunning devices that left chickens fully conscious as they were killed.
Since the trial, Hurte has given up eating meat. “I just can't, I can't stomach it,” she told National Geographic. “I cannot eat animals who are being tortured.”
Numerous investigations like DxE’s have revealed poor conditions on these U.S. factory farms, even in facilities owned by companies that promise free-range or humane treatment. And yet, surveys show that the vast majority of Americans buy products with these labels because they believe they indicate better animal welfare practices.
Public empathy has increased for animals in captivity, particularly those on factory farms. An increasing number of states are banning cages for hens. In 2022, New York’s highest court agreed to hear an animal personhood case for a Bronx Zoo elephant named Happy, and though they eventually ruled against her, it was the first time such a high court accepted an animal rights case, according to the Nonhuman Rights Project, which represented Happy. And in May, the Supreme Court upheld a California ballot measure that bans consumption of pork from farms that confine pregnant pigs in gestation crates, which are barely larger than their bodies.
“There's a constellation of different forces moving us in the direction of animal rights,” Hsiung says. “And I think open rescue will be a crucial part of it.”
Jail time is a ‘very real’ concern
Not all open rescues have been so successful—and the consequences can be severe.
In 2006, activist Adam Durand spent six months in prison for criminal trespassing after he and others went into Wegmans’ egg farm in New York State to film a documentary and rescue 11 hens they believed were ill or dying.
Amber Canavan spent 30 days in jail in 2015 for entering Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York State and removing ducks she describes as having filthy feathers, raw skin, and apparent respiratory issues, evidenced by green and brown mucus and crusty eyes. In May 2015, she graduated magna cum laude from State University of New York, and two months later, she reported to jail.
“I don't regret it,” she says. “I would have done it again.” But the experience affected her life long-term—for example, for years, she was pulled aside by TSA at the airport.
In the Smithfield case, the threat of prison time “became very real” as the team prepared for trial, Hsiung says. By the verdict, he had already crafted a statement in his head. He’d thank the jury for hearing him, and he’d make a statement about animal welfare. Though it shocked him, the not-guilty verdict reaffirmed his faith in humanity, says Hsiung, who has since left DxE to spearhead a new open rescue movement called The Simple Heart Initiative.
Is the goal of open rescue to end meat production?
“You sound like a prosecutor,” DxE communications director Cassie King quips in response.
But DxE’s goals truly are radical: Further successes “would embolden the animal rights movement and open the floodgates to more open rescues happening across the country,” King says.
That’s exactly what companies are afraid of. In his statement after trial, Smithfield’s Monroe agonized that the verdict would “encourage anyone opposed to raising animals for food to vandalize farms.”
DxE aims to formalize this by passing a five-point Animal Bill of Rights: the right to freedom; the right to not be exploited, abused, or killed by humans; the right to have their interests represented in court; the right to have a protected habitat; and, finally, the right to be rescued from distress.
Though Hsiung envisions a world where meat will be lab-grown and people will get their protein from plant-based sources, “the individual who's going in and buying the steak at the grocery store” is not the problem, he says—it’s the meat industry’s practices. He wants “a world where no animal has to suffer for any reason.
“We’re reaching a flashpoint,” Hsiung says. “Institutionalized animal exploitation will end in our lifetime.”