Six Animal Rights Activists Were Arrested in Ontario. What Happened?

In the early morning hours of October 3rd, 2021, six animal rights activists were arrested after leaving their houses. The arrests came just hours before a planned demonstration, organized by global animal rights group Meat The Victims (MTV), was supposed to take place at Hybrid Turkeys breeding farm in southern Ontario. 

The activists—Amy Soranno, Nick Schafer, Jen Deighan-Schenk, David Magina, Bridget Armastus, and Kirsten Little—were apprehended by Waterloo Regional Police at 3 a.m. before they left for the facility. All six activists were arrested for “attempted break and enter” and “attempted mischief.” All of them have since been released on bail with “no contact” orders, meaning they are not allowed to speak with each other, and a separate condition prevents them from contacting the farm. Their first court date is set for November 17 in the Ontario Court of Justice. 

Amy Soranno recalls her 15-hour experience in police custody. “In jail, it was cold and miserable, as it’s intended to be.” Every hour or so, she said they would whisper to each other, “Are you OK?” 

“I kept thinking about the mother pigs kept in gestation crates and the egg-laying hens in battery cages, the small space I was confined to was a mansion in comparison,” said Soranno. “I could move and stretch if I wanted to. And eventually, I was set free.” Most farmed animals don’t share the same fate.

Meanwhile, close to 200 activists from across Canada and the United States staged a mass protest outside of Hybrid Turkeys. This took place one week before the Thanksgiving holiday in Canada, bringing much-needed attention to the abuse of turkeys that regularly occurs at this facility and at other factory farms in the province. During this protest, activists also demanded the repeal of Ontario’s new ag-gag law, Bill 156, by which whistleblowers and activists are subject to arrest, prosecution, fines, and/or imprisonment for exposing any sort of animal abuse taking place at any farm in Ontario. The law also authorizes farm owners and states that employees can make citizen arrests if they find someone in violation of Bill 156. Several other provinces are following suit to pass and implement similar laws in the country. 

Hybrid Turkeys is one of the largest turkey breeding facilities in the world. It supplies 60 percent of the turkeys sold at Canadian grocery stores. In 2014, an undercover investigation by Mercy for Animals exposed the disturbing treatment of birds at the Hybrid Turkeys facility. Workers were seen kicking and throwing turkeys and crushing their spines with bolt cutters. The footage also showed turkeys with gaping, puss-filled wounds left to suffer and slowly die. 

Earlier this year, Canada’s only national animal law advocacy organization, Animal Justice, filed suit against the Ontario government challenging Bill 156 on the basis that it conceals animal suffering and violates people’s Charter-protected rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. This is the first lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of an ag-gag law in Canada. “This dangerous law was pushed by the powerful farm lobby to silence whistleblowers and conceal animal cruelty from the public,” Camille Labchuk, the executive director of Animal Justice, said in a statement. “We are hopeful the court will strike down this troubling ag-gag law and make it clear that Ontario and other provinces cannot interfere with Charter rights to protect the profits of the meat industry.”

Sentient Media’s Sorav Malhotra spoke to Jen Deighan-Schenk and Amy Soranno, two of the activists arrested on Sunday morning about the importance of animal rights campaigns like MTV and civil disobedience. 

Sorav Malhotra: What do you hope to accomplish from the MTV action?

Jen Deighan-Schenk: The goal is to bring attention to the abhorrent violence that is occurring at Hybrid Turkeys, the world’s largest turkey supplier. In 2015, they were charged with animal cruelty after an undercover investigation by Mercy for Animals was released. This footage revealed workers kicking and throwing turkeys, crushing their spines with bolt cutters, and brutally beating them with shovels.

Most people have no idea how animals end up on their plates because the animal agriculture industry is not transparent. Last year, Bill 156 was passed which means that anyone who exposes cruelty on farms, and other animal-related businesses, could be charged up to $15,000. They could be charged as much as $25,000 if they have exposed cruelty before. This law is meant to deter activists from shining light on animal abuse but activists will not stop. We proved that at the MTV action on Sunday with around 200 activists gathered to stand for the victims of Hybrid Turkeys.

Sorav: What legal consequences do activists face by entering the farm during an MTV action?

Amy: In an attempt to stop activists and others from exposing cruelty at commercial farms in Canada, the meat, dairy, and egg industries lobbied to pass ag-gag laws in Ontario and other Canadian provinces in order to hide their abusive practices. Ontario passed its own ag-gag law in June 2020. Anyone who violates Ontario’s Bill 156 could be subject to arrest, prosecution, fines, and/or imprisonment. The law also authorizes farm owners and employees to make citizen arrests and to use physical force in carrying out such arrests. As we have seen in past farm occupations, rescues, and investigations – police can also charge activists criminally. I previously sustained criminal charges for exposing animal cruelty at the Excelsior Hog Farm in Abbotsford, BC in 2019, I’m scheduled to go to trial in June 2022 and face decades in prison. Jen Deighan-Schenk, Meat the Victims Canada co-organizer, also faced legal repercussions after several covert investigations of Ontario fur farms, resulting in her arrest. The sacrifices we make for animals are worth it if it means we can bring them visibility and argue in court that their lives matter and need to be taken seriously.

Sorav: What is your plan of action if an MTV action results in a few activists getting arrested and their case going to trial?

Amy: When I witness exploited animals first-hand, it reinforces the idea that no matter what legal repercussions I face, nothing could ever compare to what farmed animals endure. Those turkeys will never feel the sun on their skin, move around comfortably, or even breathe fresh air… they are mutilated and continuously violated until they all die in horrific ways. I wish I didn’t have to risk my freedom in order to bring freedom to other animals. But these legal battles are exceptional ways to ensure that powerful people in courts hear the argument that animals must be considered. If we go to trial, we will also have the powerful opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of Bill 156 in court. If we continue to flood our court systems with animal activist cases, the powers that be will have no choice but to listen and eventually address these issues.

Sorav: Do you think the arrests from this week’s MTV action were fair and warranted?

Jen: We are being criminalized for allegedly attempting to expose animal abuse while the animal abusers themselves are being protected. How is that justice?

Sorav: How do activists react when they learn about the potential consequences of direct action?

Amy: As much as I believe in civil disobedience, every activist should take getting arrested very seriously. As powerful and effective as these actions can be, it can be extremely scary, isolating, costly, and often traumatic. Police have shown up at my home and surrounded my hotel room. I’m facing extreme charges and significant jail time. It’s shocking to me that I’m viewed as a criminal in society, and that we even need to go to such great lengths in order to convince people that what we’re doing to animals is wrong. But I strongly feel that engaging in civil disobedience can catapult us closer to our goals and inspire a growing movement of animal defenders to be brave and take bolder action. I understand that not everyone is willing or able to engage in civil disobedience, and not everyone needs to, but I do think everyone should support civil disobedience as a vital tactic in this movement.

Sorav: How do ag-gag laws such as Ontario’s Bill 156 and federal Bill C-205 affect your overall activism?

Amy: The governments should be putting laws in place to protect farmed animals, ensure transparency, and proactively monitor farms for compliance. Instead, the Ontario government, and other provinces, have given the industry free rein to inflict abuse on farmed animals with impunity, while adopting ag-gag laws to hide that suffering. The public must not be prevented from witnessing this abuse when it occurs, and farm employees and concerned citizens must be allowed to film and expose unethical and criminal abuse of animals, not be harshly punished for it. The problem is not that activists are trespassing to expose cruelty, the problem is legalized systemic violence, protected by corporate interests. Ag-gag laws will not prevent activists from exposing the sickening cruelty that farmed animals face. The implementation of laws, such as Bill 156, just further proves the intense lack of transparency and accountability within this industry and the horrific abuse they’re so desperate to hide.

Sorav: Why do you think actions such as MTV are necessary?

Jen: Civil disobedience plays a vital role in changing our system. There are so many monumental times in history where citizens were able to make real change through civil disobedience. Why did Rosa Parks refuse to sit at the back of the bus? Because it was the right thing to do. Why did Mahatma Gandhi stand against British rule in India? Because it was the right thing to do. Why do animal rights activists go inside farms and expose the animals’ realities? Because it’s the right thing to do. By challenging the law, we are showing the world that things need to change and we will not stop until they do. 

Sorav: What advice do you have for new and rising animal rights activists?

Jen: My advice to new and rising animal rights activists is to remember why you’re an activist. You aren’t an activist to make friends or to get praise. You’re an activist for the billions of individuals who are currently living a life of misery, being deprived of everything that could make their lives worth living. No matter what you do, you will get criticism. If you’re an activist, expect to get a lot of criticism. But as long as you have the victims in mind, none of that matters. Take care of yourself and remember that we will achieve animal liberation; it’s just going to take some time.