Two men from opposite worlds stood across from the Norbest processing plant in Moroni, Utah, on Monday, as the smell of turkey wafted through town.
One of the men, Rick Pitman, owns Norbest, among the largest turkey processing and distribution companies in the state.
The other, Wayne Hsiung, is a self-styled Berkeley, Calif., radical animal rights activist facing prison time for having stolen — or rescued, in his words — one of the birds from a nearby turkey farm that sells to Norbest.
Before them were 300 animal rights activists encircling a small pen that held 100 white-breasted turkeys, all of which were about to be spared from the slaughterhouse. Curious Norbest workers lingered nearby, watching from the facility’s front gate. Hsiung, picked up a megaphone and spoke to the crowd.
“We want everyone here to have the experience of seeing a Thanksgiving turkey rescued from abuse and violence,” Hsiung said.
The unusual gathering was a truce of sorts between the activists and Pitman, joining together in their own inaugural version of an annual turkey pardon. One by one the turkeys were taken out of the pen and checked for medical issues before they were carried by volunteers to large crates and put into vans with blankets, water, and food.
“That's what we're trying to do here today. We're trying to say, look we got one piece of common ground,” Pitman said. “We're saying you know we're different but least we can talk to each other.”
Monday’s event stemmed from a conversation between Hsiung, the co-founder of the animal rights organization Direct Action Everywhere, and Pitman, whose family also owns Pitman Family Farms in California. Pitman.
They met in a chance encounter in June, shortly after Hsiung was charged with felony theft for taking a bird. With five other activists, Hsiung had arrived in Sanpete County in January 2017 to sneak onto the turkey farm.
The idea was to investigate the animals’ living conditions and “rescue” a sick turkey, and then document what they found through a video that they later posted online. And that what got them in trouble
In May 2018, the Utah Attorney General’s office charged Hsiung and four others with felony theft. It wasn’t the first time he’s faced prosecution. He’s racked up nine charges from multiple states, but so far, he hasn’t served any time in prison.
As he awaited court hearings, Hsiung went back to Sanpete County a month later. He stood at the gate to Norbest and handed out vegan cookies to the workers as they were leaving the slaughterhouse. He was hoping to spark a conversation about their working conditions when a man approached.
“This older gentlemen, very well dressed, comes out. And he’s got this big smile on his face. I’m thinking to myself — ‘Who is this guy?’” Hsiung recalled.
Only after they sat down did Hsiung realize he was talking to Rick Pitman, the new owner of Norbest. Hsiung knew the Pitman name well — the family owns many large farms in California.
Pitman was passing through Utah to check on his new business which he’d purchased just six months earlier, long after Hsiung took the turkey.
It was a coincidence the two were there at the same time, but Pitman, who was familiar with Hsiung and his organization, wanted to take advantage of the situation. He approached Hsiung to ask him about his concerns, and hear the things that made him unhappy about their practices.
The conversation quickly turned personal, talking about family and work, but Hsiung says they really started to connect over religion.
“I think the thing we connected over initially was the fact that we’re both of a religious minority. He's a Mormon in California and, you know, Mormons aren't too popular in California. And I was Buddhist and I was born in Indiana,” Hsiung said.
The conversation eventually flowed into their views on how animals are treated. Hsiung believes that no animal should be harmed for food, clothing, or in the wild. Pitman works for a company that kills 4 million turkey’s each year.
To Hsiung, Pitman is a man who cares about animals but is bound by the business he grew up in.
For Pitman, he said he understands where activists like Hsiung are coming from and can sympathize, but he doesn’t know where that leaves him.
“Because all my life I’ve been raising animals. And the only thing you raise animals for is so you can make a living to support your family and the other families that are here. So that’s all we know how to do,” Pitman said.
Many conversations followed the first one. Hsiung proposed the idea to release the turkeys to Pitman in October. Pitman agreed, saying it would be a gesture of good faith on both sides.
On Monday, all 100 turkeys were taken to sanctuaries in Colorado, California, Washington, and Oregon.