It started with a loose sow and ended with death threats.
“It really got out of control very quickly,” said Andrew Dickson, general manager of the Manitoba Pork Council, recalling how public interest in a pig found near Winnipeg’s Perimeter Highway last May quickly evolved into something more sinister.
Nicknamed “Mercy the Pig” the sow was found roaming near Winnipeg’s city limits. A passerby stopped and filmed the animal eating grass and receiving pats before police assisted in loading it onto a trailer. Before long, several media outlets had picked up the story and a GoFundMe campaign was set up to purchase the pig and send it to an animal sanctuary.
At the same time, the pork council was working to find the animal’s owner so that it could be returned. By the time animal rights activists offered to buy the animal for about $3,000, it had already arrived at its intended destination, a U.S. processing plant.
“That is what the animal was raised for,” said Dickson, adding if there had been any issue with how the animal had been cared for or its physical condition, provincial officials would have been called in to investigate. “I said the pig has gone to the processing plant, but we have 301,200 other ones and I’m quite happy to offer them all up for $3,000 apiece.”
But the story didn’t end there, he said as he told the story at the annual Manitoba Swine Seminar last week.
Soon Manitoba Pork’s offices were inundated with phone calls. Some were polite, but the vast majority was not.
“We had more than 600 calls to our office,” said Dickson. “Two-thirds of them were from the United States, there were death threats; we had to involve the RCMP; it was insane.”
The organization’s Facebook page and Twitter feed were also swamped with crass and threatening comments, so many that both had to be shut down. Nearly nine months later, the council has yet to be able to relaunch its social media accounts.
Dickson said the organization realizes the violent views of the activists who targeted them represent a very small minority of extremists, but he knows future forays into social media will have to take them into account.
“When we relaunch these social media techniques, we’ll make sure that we’ve got some strong controls in place and we will be more careful about restricting the type of material that we’re prepared to talk about,” he said. “And if it gets out of hand we’ll use the appropriate tools that these systems have in place to maintain civil conduct.”
Given trends in activism over the last decade — which have seen more emphasis put on social media — he’s not entirely surprised by the ordeal. In the United States, these types of tactics have been common for some time, said Dickson.
“These groups are entitled to their opinion, but there are rules about civil conduct,” he said. “So you have to be careful you don’t overreact to it. But on the other hand, if you think there is a clear threat to yourself or to your employees, then you have to get police involved.”
Speaking to producers at the annual Manitoba Swine Seminar in Winnipeg last week, the general manager offered some practical advice.
“You are being watched,” he said. “This is the crazy nonsense that goes on and we’ve all got to watch what we do, and what I’ve suggested is really check your trailer next time.”