Sometime over the weekend, someone spray-painted the word “MURDERER” in bright-red letters on the front of Garden City Harvest’s headquarters on Hickory Street in Missoula, and employees have been inundated with vulgar, threatening and expletive-laden emails and calls.
The vandalism was signed with the word “ALF”, with the A in the form of an anarchy symbol. The Animal Liberation Front is a loosely organized animal rights organization that has been accused of engaging in illegal direct action in the past.
Though nobody has been arrested in connection with the vandalism, it appears to have been a protest of the butchering of three hogs for educational purposes. The nonprofit Garden City Harvest operates a youth education program at its PEAS Farm in the Rattlesnake, and three to five pigs are raised every year. Kids in every grade level are allowed to see and touch the animals as part of a curriculum that aims to give them insight into their local food system.
“We see 2,500 school kids a year as well as adults and college students,” said GCH executive director Jean Zosel. “Having the pigs on the site, they can see where meat comes from. Some kids think meat comes from Albertsons. That’s part of our farm-to-school work, is helping people learn where their meat comes from.
"And we have conversations about humane treatment of farm animals and whether that makes someone decide they are fine with that or become a vegetarian, we start the conversation, which is not happening anywhere else," she said. "And when the hogs are about seven months old, the hogs are taken to a facility and then they’re harvested.”
Much of the meat goes to the Missoula Food Bank, Zosel explained, and some of it is sold elsewhere.
“They have this big huge pen to walk around in, lots of fresh water, food, scraps from the farm and you know, it’s the right way to raise animals for meat in my opinion,” she said.
However, a student organization at the University of Montana called Advocates for Animals started an online Change.org petition last spring called “Urge PEAS to Stop the Senseless Slaughter of Pigs.” The petition had 7,212 supporters as of Monday.
Kristian Cantens is the UM student who wrote the original Change.org petition, and co-founded Advocates for Animals at UM. He said he’s “appalled” that the GCH’s headquarters was vandalized. He said he personally spoke to Zosel and made it clear it’s not something he condones or supports.
“That was fine,” Zosel said of the petition. “Advocates for Animals would prefer that animals not be used for meat. This fall they came back and had a protest and some tables in front of the Environmental Studies building. At one point we had seen their petition and told them, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of inaccuracies in here, this is the correct information’ but they didn’t change anything.”
One of the group’s members had a connection with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights organization based in Virginia that claims between 3 million and 5 million members and supporters.
The international PETA website posted an “action alert” for followers to “urge the University of Montana to Stop Slaughtering Pigs” and the deluge came in to the GCH’s offices shortly thereafter.
One caller, from Florida, left an angry voicemail calling the GCH staff “godless pieces of (expletive)” and a “bunch of (expletive) killing animals for no reason.” Most of the other words in the message are unfit to print.
“We’ve stopped taking calls from area codes that aren’t in Montana,” Zosel said. “I think everyone deserves to have their voice heard, but that was upsetting.”
Genevieve Jessop Marsh, the community outreach director for GCH, said that in industrial feedlots, hogs are kept in terrible conditions. She said the PEAS Farm workers take care to give the pigs everything they want.
“It is our intent that through a mindful approach to farming and animal husbandry, we will achieve healthier lives for the people and animals involved as well as the greater community,” she said in an email. “We are committed to making sure all our animals live happy, healthy lives at our farms.”
The PEAS Farm is not owned or operated by the university, but a class of Environmental Studies students works there every semester.
Cantens, who wrote the petition, said of the vandalism, and the calls and emails, “I hope that I speak on behalf of everybody in my club when I say this isn’t something that we wanted. In our discussions, we never talked about anger or retribution or getting back at them somehow.
"We put a lot of work into that campaign, and we were just concerned about the pigs. This came out of the blue. This is not what we stand for. This is contrary to our message, and I had no idea this was happening," he said.
Cantens, who said he stands for pacifism, said he doesn’t know of anyone who would be capable of vandalism like that.
“Of course, I don’t know what people do in their spare time,” he said.
Cantens said he helped get the issue on the radar of PETA.
“We felt like we weren’t really being heard as a group, and of course if you bring PETA in you get more attention,” he said. “So we asked for help. And they wrote the call to action and everything. It was just a way of bringing more attention to this issue.”
Cantens called the inaccuracies that Zosel pointed out to him “nitpicky” things.
“We used the term ‘babies’ for a six-month-old pig, and they disagreed and said it was an adult,” he said.
Jessop Marsh and Zosel said the pigs at the farm are actually sexually mature adults before they are butchered.
“We’re not doing something that’s unusual, except that they have a good home and they’re not factory farmed,” Zosel said.
In any case, Cantens wanted to make clear that he agrees with GCH’s overall mission.
“There’s nothing against their character,” he said. “They do great things for the community and our only disagreement was the killing of the pigs. We offered to find a sanctuary for the pigs and offered money to overwinter them.”
When asked why his organization chose to single out a nonprofit over three pigs as opposed to large feedlots that slaughter thousands of animals every day, Cantens said his group is not exclusively focusing on the PEAS Farm.
“The pigs there matter, and just because it’s three as opposed to thousands doesn’t mean they don’t matter,” he said. “It’s something that’s involving faculty and students and supposed to be serving the interests of the community at large. We care about larger issues as well. We’re focused on supporting the trapping ban. This is just one of our campaigns.”
The PEAS Farm has been raising and harvesting pigs for more than a decade. Back in 2008, a neighbor complained that workers used a gun to slaughter the animals, so now they are sent to a facility to be processed. Zosel said the organization has no intentions of stopping the program because it provides so many benefits to kids who tour the farm.
“The animals are always their favorite part,” she said. “Kids learn that no, meat doesn’t directly come from Albertsons. They learn that a cow has four stomachs and they learn all these things. Then they go to the farm and see pigs and chickens and understand that those are food sources for some people. Not everyone is a vegetarian or a vegan. So there’s an opportunity here to help people understand some differences in the food industry. We feel that that’s an important message to convey, because it meshes with our mission.”