Skip to main content

PETA president Ingrid Newkirk, left, listens to a speech by Anita Krajnc, right, who was charged with mischief after giving water to pigs on their way to slaughter, as they demonstrate outside of a Burlington courthouse ahead of closing arguments in her case, Thursday, March 9, 2017 in Burlington, Ont.Aaron Lynett/The Canadian Press

Update: Anita Krajnc has been acquitted of her charge of criminal mischief.

Seven years ago, Anita Krajnc could be found standing alone outside Toronto-area abattoirs, holding one-woman protests against the meat industry. She would regularly send out invitations to members of the media and public to attend, but more often than not, her invitations went ignored.

This week, the 49-year-old Toronto woman finds herself the global face of animal activism, at the centre of one of the biggest animal-law cases in Canadian history. Ms. Krajnc faces a possible six-month jail sentence for giving water to pigs headed to slaughter in a case that has become a cause célèbre of the worldwide animal-rights movement. On Thursday, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), flew from Washington to a Burlington, Ont., courthouse to stand behind Ms. Krajnc for the closing arguments in her case. Around the world, activists held "solidarity vigils" in support of Ms. Krajnc.

This notoriety did not happen by accident.

As animal-rights activists look to attract new audiences, Ms. Krajnc's case highlights the sophistication with which these groups are waging their campaigns. In interviews, Ms. Krajnc's supporters detailed a highly organized operation by the many different groups who came together to gain attention for – and use as a platform – the Toronto woman's cause.

Almost immediately after she was charged with criminal mischief in September, 2015, Ms. Krajnc says she realized her case might be of public interest. Video of the altercation shows Ms. Krajnc ignoring a truck driver's request to stop feeding the animals outside of a Burlington abattoir. While delivering the summons, she said the police officer told her, "Oh, this is going to be a news story."

Ms. Krajnc noticed her video was being widely shared online, she said, and decided to reach out for help. So she contacted PETA, the world's largest animal-rights group.

"It was immediately obvious it had enormous potential," PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said. She said Ms. Krajnc was "the right time, right place, right personality."

Over the course of weeks, the group developed a media plan, using PETA's international contacts to reach out to reporters around the world. Staff at PETA helped Ms. Krajnc's Toronto Pig Save group to draft news releases for maximum impact. PETA also shared the video on its own social-media channels – and used it to further some of their own causes.

According to Ms. Newkirk, Ms. Krajnc's video alone is responsible for "thousands" of new recruits to the group's "vegan pledge" program. PETA also used Ms. Krajnc and her case as a platform to distribute other promotional materials.

Meanwhile, James Silver, one of Canada's best-known animal-rights lawyers, offered to take on Ms. Krajnc's case pro bono.

On one of the legal team's first phone calls, Mr. Silver recalls blurting out the words: "Compassion is not a crime."

"The second the words came out," Mr. Silver said, "everybody was, like, dead silence."

The group immediately seized upon the phrase as a slogan.

Other organizations such as Animal Justice, a legal group led by Camille Labchuk, a well-connected Ontario-based lawyer and former press secretary to Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, also came on board to help.

Within months, Ms. Krajnc had become an international media story. The U.S.-based musician Moby reached out to offer to pay her legal fees. In the spring, songwriter Diane Warren flew her out to Los Angeles for a celebrity-packed humane society gala.

Outside the Burlington courthouse Thursday, the organization behind Ms. Krajnc was on full display. Ms. Krajnc and Ms. Newkirk took turns speaking at a microphone, while volunteers carried "Go Vegan" signs behind them. Others huddled over Tupperware containers and Whole Foods bags, preparing vegan snacks for the group.

Meanwhile, Robin Bryce, a member of Ms. Krajnc's Toronto Pig Save group, weaved through the crowd, co-ordinating Facebook Live feeds and other social-media activity.

She described how the group had previously experimented with different hashtags, but that "Pig Trial" seemed to be the most effective. And she explained that there was a strategy behind the photos they chose. "Picture of the [animal's] eyes, that's what we try to focus on," she said. "The eyes convey the most emotion."

Inside the courtroom, Crown attorney Harutyun Apel argued that Ms. Krajnc committed a crime by ignoring the driver's protestations, and that she posed a potential food-safety threat.

Ms. Krajnc's other lawyer Gary Grill, meanwhile, responded by saying his client was acting in the public interest. As in previous appearances, he and Mr. Silver used the trial as a vehicle to highlight what they describe as the cruelties of the meat industry.

More than once, Mr. Grill compared Ms. Krajnc's actions with those of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. He also drew parallels between pigs being led to slaughter and Jews sent to death camps in Nazi Germany.

"The point that I'm making," Mr. Grill said, "is that in their ability to suffer, a pig is the same as a human. And the offence we commit in relation to a pig in causing suffering is the same suffering we commit in relation to a human who suffers in the same way."

The court adjourned by early afternoon, with a decision in the case expected by early May.

Afterward, Ms. Krajnc and her two lawyers took a moment to regroup before making their way toward the door.

Outside, there were more reporters waiting.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe