Animal activists plead not guilty as jury trial begins on mischief, break-and-enter charges
Three people accused of mischief and break-and-enter in relation to an Abbotsford hog farm pleaded not guilty to all charges at the start of their jury trial on Monday.
Amy Soranno, Roy Sasano, and Nicholas Schafer stood in court and entered the pleas as supporters looked on from the gallery. Demonstrators holding signs with images of pigs also lined the street outside the Abbotsford courthouse.
In an opening statement, prosecutor Scott Quendack told the court he expects the evidence will show a protest took place at Excelsior Hog Farm on Harris Road in Abbotsford in April 2019, where a group of demonstrators entered the barns and initially refused to leave until members of the media were allowed to tour the facility.
“All three of the accused who are before you today were arrested at this time,” Quendack said. “Subsequent to that arrest, some digital devices were seized from two of the accused. An analysis of the data found on those devices revealed images of some people inside what appeared to be hog barns.”
Quendack said the Crown’s theory is the hog barn was entered in February and March 2019 for the purpose of installing secret video cameras “in the hopes of…capturing video recordings of any maltreatment of the animals in those barns.”
“It’s the Crown’s theory that the accused were motivated by ideology, their ideology,” he said. “Which is opposed to the farming of animals for meat.”
Quendack told the court a few weeks prior to the protest, members of the family that owns the farm found what appeared to be “small surveillance cameras” in one of their barns, which they removed and turned over to the police.
Insp. Kevin Murray, with the Abbotsford Police Department, was one of three police witnesses to testify about the protest at the farm in April.
He testified he spoke with Soranno inside the barn, and notified her and the other protestors their presence there was “unlawful”.
“It appeared to be an occupation of the barn,” he said. “This was a new one for us. I had been a police officer for 19 years up to that point, never had experienced anything like this.”
He told the court he presented the demonstrators request for a media tour of the barn to the farm’s owner.
“That initially went over like a lead balloon,” he said. “They would agree to a media tour if certain conditions were met.”
Murray testified those conditions included having a vet come along, and that CTV would be excluded from the tour.
Murray also told the court Soranno was arrested and brought back to police cells afterwards, where her phone was seized before she was released on an undertaking.
“I had a conversation with Ms. Soranno explaining to her my intention was to seize her phone…we were going to apply for a search warrant to get the contents,” he said. “I proposed that if she provided me the password to the phone once we got a search warrant it would be easier for us to access the phone.”
He testified after the phone was seized it was turned off and put into a “paint can”, so it “couldn’t be wiped remotely”.
'THE PUBLIC HAS A RIGHT TO SEE WHAT'S INSIDE OF THESE FARMS'
The three accused spoke outside of court. Soranno said she hopes the case helps raise awareness about the welfare of farmed animals.
“Of course we’re worried about the potential of facing time behind bars,” she said. “But ultimately, that pales in comparison to what farmed animals endure every single day.”
Schafer called for mandatory CCTV cameras in all farms and slaughterhouses in B.C.
“If they’re not really concerned about people seeing what’s going on inside of the farms, I think it’s important that the public has the right to see what’s inside of these farms,” he said. “And implementing CCTV cameras that the public has access to would be the best way, in my opinion, to get that done.”
Sasano said in the process of defending themselves, every argument is “linked to the animals.”
“We’re hopeful that through this entire process, more people will become aware of these realities, and might choose differently next time they go to the grocery store,” he said. “No matter what happens in there, even if we’re somehow convicted on every count, even if we get the maximum sentence for everything, it’s nothing. We’re walking out with our throats intact. It’s nothing compared what animals go through every day.”
In April 2019, a video released by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sparked an SPCA investigation. It showed a number of dead piglets, as well as a pig corpse that appeared to be in an advanced state of decomposition. Some pigs in the video appeared to have growths, and one seemed to have trouble standing. PETA said the video had been provided anonymously and had been allegedly captured at Excelsior Hog Farm in February and March of 2019.
Days after the video was made public, a protest was held at the farm. At the time, Abbotsford police said around 50 people entered the facility.
The SPCA did not end up recommending charges, and said while what was depicted raised concerns, they could not come to any legal conclusions that an offence had taken place, particularly without the co-operation of the person who recorded the video.
All three accused indicated they may testify at the trial, which is scheduled for four weeks.