LAND O'LAKES — An animal rights organization says it has reports that pigs are being cut up with tools and bashed with rocks by inmates who work in the Pasco County jail's agriculture program.
"There have been instances where pigs have been mutilated as other inmates cheer and holler at the spectacle," People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, citing unnamed sources, said in a letter Tuesday to Pasco Sheriff Bob White, county commissioners and administrators and State Attorney Bernie McCabe.
"Needless to say, these horrifying reports leave us gravely concerned for the animals in this program," said the letter, signed by PETA caseworker Kristin DeJournett.
The reports are based on sources PETA said feared reprisal if their names are released. "Our sources claim to be directly affiliated with the facility but not in a manner whereby they can affect change," she wrote.
After receiving the letter, White assigned a major crimes detective to investigate PETA's reports, Col. Al Nienhuis wrote Wednesday in a response to DeJournett.
"I can assure you that the sheriff takes these allegations seriously," he wrote. "I would strongly recommend that you encourage your source, if he or she has first-hand knowledge, to come forward and assist the Major Crimes detective in getting to the bottom of this issue."
DeJournett said in an interview Wednesday that one of PETA's sources had filed the allegations Tuesday through the organization's online reporting form. She declined to say if the source was a jail employee or former inmate. She acknowledged PETA had little time to determine the legitimacy of the complaint but said the allegations were serious enough to warrant quick action.
"We have to give the animals the benefit of the doubt," she said. "If there's any grain of truth to this, they (the allegations) need to be looked into."
Sheriff spokesman Kevin Doll said inmates who work in the agriculture program are supposed to be supervised by detention officers at all times.
As part of the farm program at the jail, inmates grow crops and raise pigs, which are sent off to a Manatee County slaughterhouse. The meat comes back to the jail.
According to PETA's source, "pigs who 'don't make the grade' are deliberately killed inhumanely," the letter says.
DeJournett said she believed the source was referring to pigs that, for unspecified reasons, did not meet requirements to be sent to the slaughterhouse.
She said PETA has received reports that animals have been abused by inmates at correctional facilities around the country. But those generally pertain to feral cats or wildlife that wander onto the premises.
By coincidence, PETA received the Pasco allegations a day after National Pig Day (March 1), an informal holiday started by two sisters in 1972 to celebrate the contributions of the pig.
DeJournett said the timing was a coincidence, and she didn't think her sources had any publicity stunt in mind. She noted that PETA itself had not contacted the media about the allegations.
"I don't think that it has anything to do with National Pig Day," she said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.