SALT LAKE CITY — Five animal rights activists are facing felony charges and up to 10 years in prison for taking turkeys from a central Utah farm in what they call a rescue of suffering animals. Prosecutors call it criminal theft.
Sanpete County prosecutors filed charges Wednesday against members of the California-based Direct Action Everywhere for actions that occurred while capturing undercover video at farms that supply the Norbest turkey plant in Moroni about 105 miles (168 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City last January.
"What we saw was suffering on a horrendous scale," Jon Frohnmayer, one of the activists, said Friday. He and another man last year interrupted Gov. Gary Herbert's pardoning of a Thanksgiving turkey, shouting "Show us all the barns!"
The five members were each charged with one count of felony burglary and felony poultry theft. A sixth man was charged with felony burglary. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Frohnmayer said the activists took at least three suffering birds as a so-called "open rescue," including a chick they named Abby.
"We rescued Abby because that was simply the compassionate thing to do," he said. "She was on the verge of death. She couldn't hold her head up."
One of the group's strategies is to identify apparently needy animals and take them from commercial facilities to a veterinary clinic and then to a sanctuary.
Undercover images from Utah farms released by Direct Action Everywhere last November show allegedly haggard and sick birds crowded into tight spaces.
Norbest, which claims its turkeys come "from pristine high mountain valleys," has said that the images were "deeply disturbing."
The company said it had already documented violations at the farms and taken action to address them before the photos and video were released. It did not respond to a request for comment about the charges on Friday.
Norbest is Utah's largest producer of turkey products, including ground and sliced meat.
County prosecutor Kevin Daniels said that the activists' motivations are irrelevant.
"They went into the property belonging to another without permission, they entered into that building and they stole something that did not belong to them," he said. "Regardless of their motives or their desires, they broke the law."
"If they believed there was a crime being committed — in this case cruelty to animals, as they allege — there are proper ways that the rule of law dictates how you should handle that."
Last July, a federal court struck down a Utah law banning secret filming at farm and livestock sites as an unconstitutional violation of free speech. Activists say that those so-called "ag-gag" laws are designed to hide shocking treatment of animals from the public. Similar laws are under scrutiny elsewhere in the country.
Activists claim that the charges filed this week amount to an end-run around that decision.
"The industry is very, very afraid of people doing what we are doing," Frohnmayer said. "They're afraid of transparency."
Daniels said he has never spoken with anyone in the agricultural industry about the case.
A court hearing is scheduled for June 13. Frohnmayer, who lives in Berkeley, California, said he and the other defendants plan to attend.