Editor’s note: This story contains graphic details about alleged animal abuse that may be sensitive to some readers.
BELFAST, Maine — The man who used his excavator to bury pigs on a Swanville farm nearly two years ago described a bloody, chaotic scene for jurors on Monday, the first day of Jerry Ireland’s animal cruelty trial at the Waldo Judicial Center in Belfast.
“He started shooting pigs with the rifle,” David Gordon testified. “He was shooting at pigs that were just walking loose. He would shoot at one, it would squeal and run off. He’d shoot at another one. It would squeal and run off.”
Ireland, 44, formerly owned and operated Ireland Hill Farms, where he grew vegetables and raised Mangalitsa pigs, a heritage breed. Prosecutors are working to make the case that Ireland caught the attention of local and state animal welfare agents, who were scheduled to come check on the well-being of his pigs just one day after the farmer killed and buried them. He is facing 13 counts of animal cruelty.
“It’s allowed, under the law, to kill your animals if you do so in a humane way,” Bill Entwisle, Waldo County assistant district attorney, said in his opening remarks. “The evidence will show this did not happen in a humane way. They did not have an instantaneous death … Mr. Ireland knew that state agents were coming, and this led him to take a desperate and heinous action that led to these pigs’ death.”
But Ireland’s lawyer, Hunter Tzovarras of Bangor, painted a different picture — that of a farmer who felt harassed by state and local animal welfare agents, but who killed his pigs as a straightforward business decision, not to avoid getting in trouble.
“Jerry Ireland is a farmer, and he’s innocent of these charges. Jerry Ireland did what farmers do every day — put down some farm animals,” Tzovarras told the jury during his opening statement. “He shot them in the head. They died right away. That’s what Jerry intended to do. He didn’t want these animals to suffer. Jerry was in the business of farming. He wasn’t in the business of abusing animals.”
Others who testified Monday included a state animal welfare agent and Jessica Vaillancourt, a woman who worked for Ireland for two years as a farmhand. Vaillancourt said she grew concerned about the pigs’ well-being beginning in 2016, because their primary food source was potato scraps from the Penobscot McCrum processing factory in Belfast.
“The pigs were not thriving, getting solely potatoes. They were losing weight,” she said, acknowledging that she had not had lots of prior experience working with pigs. “Even without experience, that’s something that’s obvious to anybody … you shouldn’t see the bones of a pig, I would assume.”
Tzovarras, in his cross-examination, suggested that the pigs could forage in the fields and woods and said that she was only at the farm 15 or so hours a week.
“Fair to say, you don’t know what’s going on in the farm the other 150 hours a week,” he said to the former farmhand. “You never showed up and there was never food to feed them. There was always food to feed them.”
The only witness who was there for the death of the pigs was Gordon. The former Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy belonged to the United Farmer Veterans of Maine, a nonprofit headed at that time by Ireland. The farmer had hired Gordon to do occasional jobs, and he thought nothing of it when Ireland asked him to come by the farm with his excavator to dig a hole to bury some pigs.
What he found, though, was unexpected. He testified that he saw Ireland shoot at least four pigs, as well as a Highland cow. When it started bleeding, some of the pigs came by and lapped at its blood, Gordon said, adding that he overheard a shouting match between Ireland and Chris Knowlton, another man who was at the farm.
“Chris said, ‘You don’t have to shoot the animals. I can take them,’” Gordon told the jury. “Jerry started mumbling and yelling how he had to get this effing done, because the state was going to be there the next day with a search warrant.”
At that point, Gordon said, Ireland went to Knowlton’s car and took a handgun from it that he used on the pigs, which began to die. He used his machine to start putting the animals’ bodies into the large hole he had dug, but some were still alive, he said.
“[Ireland] asked me to put a pig that was still moving into a hole,” Gordon said. “I refused. I told him I wasn’t putting anything in a hole that wasn’t dead.”
In his cross-examination, Tzovarras challenged Gordon’s recollection of that day.
“There was no cow found in that hole, sir,” the lawyer said.
But Gordon stuck to his story.
“I placed that [Highland] cow in the hole myself, with the excavator,” Gordon replied.
Tzovarras also suggested that he might not have been upfront about his reasons for talking to authorities about what had happened. He said that Ireland owed Gordon money for work he had done.
“After all this was over, you told Mr. Ireland you wanted to be paid or you would talk to people about this incident,” the lawyer said.
Gordon seemed shocked by the allegation.
“I never said that,” he protested.
Later, he described how his experience that day had unsettled him.
“I went home and was sick to my stomach for a couple of days,” he said, adding that a couple of days later he wrote a report and sought out someone from the Animal Welfare Program to share it with. “With the experience I had from law enforcement, I knew this was going to turn into something.”
The trial is scheduled to resume at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.