Jerry Ireland is pictured at his Swanville Farm in 2016. Credit: Gabor Degre

BELFAST, Maine — A Waldo County jury on Friday found a former farmer not guilty on all four counts of animal cruelty he faced for the killing of three pigs and the alleged neglect of one surviving pig at his farm in March 2018.

The jury deliberated for less than an hour before acquitting Jerry Ireland, 44, who used to own and operate Ireland Hill Farms in Swanville.

“We’re obviously happy with the jury’s verdict,” defense attorney Hunter Tzovarras of Bangor said on the steps of the Waldo Judicial Center after the trial concluded. “Jerry waited a long time to have his day in court. He’s feeling relieved to have it over.”

Ireland was on the radar of a local animal control officer and then the state Animal Welfare Program in 2017, when some of his cows got loose. After that, officials continued to express concern about what he was feeding his pigs and the condition of his farm. Tensions escalated, according to testimony heard during the three-day trial, when Ireland ultimately fatally shot a dozen pigs the day before state agents were scheduled to come to his farm and execute a search warrant there.

It may have seemed a longshot for a jury in farming-friendly Waldo County to convict a farmer on charges connected to killing his livestock, but Bill Entwisle, Waldo County assistant district attorney, worked to make the point that Ireland’s charges were not based on the fact that he killed the pigs, but how he killed them.

The man who dug the hole to bury the pigs testified Monday that Ireland initially used a weapon that was too small to kill the pigs, which he said were running around squealing and bleeding. Two veterinarians also testified that three of the five pigs they examined showed the bullets did not hit their brains.

“These pigs died solely as a result of loss of blood. It’s evidence of a crime of animal cruelty,” Entwisle said during his closing remarks. “As a farmer, it’s not illegal to kill livestock — as long as you do it properly.”

After the jury reached its verdict, Assistant Maine State Veterinarian Rachael Fiske told the BDN that if the state had been able to present all of the evidence recovered as a result of the investigation, it would speak for itself.

“The Animal Welfare Program’s goal in this case, as in all of our cases, was to attempt to work with Mr. Ireland to comply with the laws in Maine regarding the care provided to his animals,” she said. “When Mr. Ireland chose to euthanize and bury the animals a day ahead of a scheduled AWP visit, we were left with no choice but to continue to investigate the allegations of animal cruelty that had been made against him.”

But Ireland’s attorney, who made the case that his client had intended to kill all the pigs humanely and treated them correctly prior to death, prevailed.

“Jerry felt like he and his farm were being targeted by animal control — that that was part of the motivation in this case,” Tzovarras said after the trial.

Ireland had taken the stand in his own defense for about two hours Friday morning, telling the jurors detailed information about his farming practices in general and on the day that he killed his pigs in particular. Contrary to testimony from some witnesses, he said he didn’t solely feed the heritage Mangalitsa pigs scraps from the Penobscot McCrum potato-processing plant in Belfast, and maintained that he provided them with sufficient water and shelter.

“They were born to forage, to live in the woods,” Ireland said. “In the process of bringing this farm ground back to life, I felt a good foraging pig could actually help us. Of all the different breeds that I tried, these were definitely the most hearty — the most sustainable.”

But in late November 2017, four months before the pigs were killed, Ireland had started to transition the farm away from raising pork and toward vegetables and maple syrup. In that month, he began putting the pigs up for sale, and continued to reduce the numbers of pigs through March 2018. He sold five Mangalitsas to a farm in Orland, and decided he needed to put down the rest, describing the deaths as quick.

“In most cases, I was able to walk up behind them, or beside them, and discharge the firearm in the back of their ear. In most cases, they didn’t even know what was happening,” he said.

Ireland also testified that he had no knowledge that state agents were coming to his farm the next day to execute the search warrant. That contradicted previously heard testimony from David Gordon, a witness who told the jury Monday that he heard the farmer arguing with another man there “how he had to get this effing done, because the state was going to be there the next day with a search warrant.”

“I have no recollection of an argument,” Ireland said.

In cross-examination, Entwisle challenged Ireland on the idea that he had no choice but to put the pigs down and bury them in a big hole on the farm.

“You had no option of anything else to do with them, other than put them down,” he asked the former farmer. “No option to do any other thing with these pigs, such as bring them to the butcher or anything else?”

Ireland said he did not.

“I don’t think there was an alternative for any of these pigs,” he said.

The jury’s verdict came as a letdown to members of the United Farmer Veterans of Maine, the nonprofit which Ireland used to lead before stepping down a few months after he was charged with animal cruelty. Bob Sousa, the vice president, said he had been one of Ireland’s staunchest supporters initially but is no longer. He said he did not believe justice was served.

“It’s frustrating — so much was just left on the table by the prosecutor,” he said, adding that he’s “absolutely disappointed” in the outcome.

But others should see it in a positive light, Tzovarras said.

“I think farmers can take relief in [the outcome]. Putting down farm animals is not a crime in the state of Maine.”