Activists face felony charges in case targeting Petaluma poultry farm protests

Read the original article by Mary Callahan at here.

Four animal welfare activists facing felony criminal charges in connection with a series of demonstrations last year at several Petaluma poultry farms pleaded not guilty Thursday in a case that pits the private property rights of farmers against unproven claims of persistent animal abuse at local sites that sell to grocers including Whole Foods.

Members of Direct Action Everywhere, an animal rights network that mobilized hundreds of people for protests at three Petaluma sites last year, say their mission is to bring attention to the suffering of commercially raised animals and provide relief to the animals when they can.

During two actions last year — one at the Weber Family Farms egg production facility and the other at McCoy Poultry Services, where chickens are raised for meat — protesters also forced their way into buildings and seized a combined 51 chickens they claimed were ailing, including 14 dead and dying ones at McCoys.

They argue that such “rescues” are authorized under the same animal cruelty law in California that makes it legal to break into a closed car to save a dog from overheating or free a chained pet in danger of freezing to death in someone’s backyard.

And they think the region’s consumers want to know how products marketed as wholesome, environmentally sustainable foods and sold at places such as Whole Foods are raised.

“We think this case is a chance for the truth to be known in Sonoma County,” said Berkeley resident and Direct Action co-founder Wayne Hsiung, 37, one of the defendants.

But Sonoma County prosecutors see it differently, as do the families whose longtime operations provide eggs and chickens in keeping with a long-standing Petaluma agricultural legacy.

Mike Weber, a fourth-generation partner with his brother in Weber Family Farms, where activists forced their way in last May and made off with 37 mostly brand new laying hens, said it was heartbreaking to see his family’s longtime business falsely accused of mistreatment given the near-weekly inspections by regulators.

He said he called a strategic customer to come out to the Liberty Road farm while activists were still on the property so they could see the conditions that day for themselves and document the birds that protesters took to show they had no signs of disease or defeathering.

Reports that activists found dead or dying birds, evidence of cannibalism among the birds, poor air quality, starvation or birds that couldn’t get water were unfounded, he said.

“All the claims that were made were categorically false,” said Weber, who also is a partner in Sunrise Farms, an egg processing consortium that both authorities and activists initially identified as the target of the Sept. 29 action.

Hsiung, Berkeley residents Cassandra King, 21 and Priya Sawhney, 29, and Almira Tanner, 31, of San Jose face a total of 12 charges, seven of them felonies, including two counts of conspiracy, four counts of second-degree commercial burglary and one of theft of domestic fowl.

Two other activists, Jon Frohnmayer and Rachel Ziegler , face similar charges in a separate complaint stemming from the same demonstrations. They have yet to enter pleas.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said the approach taken by her office in pursuing felony convictions did not deviate from normal charging practices. “It’s based on an evaluation of the person’s participation in these events as well as their criminal history, if any, and their participation in prior events,” she said.

“We endeavored to be even-handed in how we approached this,” she said. Weber said the value of the chickens the activists took from his family’s farm was significant in that most had not yet begun laying.

The larger threat was that while the intruders wore Tyvex suits, they had no such protection on their feet or heads, Weber said, and thus potentially exposed more than 600,000 chickens on the farm to all manner of pathogens that could have wiped out the entire family operation had disease caught hold.

Hsiung, an attorney, said the birds are bred to grow so fast that their metabolic systems can’t keep pace with the size of their bodies, leading to premature deaths, one of a number of problems that he contends are accepted in animal agriculture but little understood outside of it.

He and other members of his group said that whistleblowers and activists had been documenting poor conditions in Petaluma-area poultry farms and had tried to persuade various law enforcement and animal regulation agencies to investigate without success, leading to the actions last year.

They included the May 29 protest at Weber Family Farms, which drew about 500 people, a July march on Petaluma Farms, another egg farm, and the Sept. 29 action at McCoy Poultry Services.

McCoy Poultry Services ranch manager Marlene Hansel, whose late father founded the operation, conceded that a small percentage of chickens do sometimes get overly big and die, “just like people.”

But if they perished at a high rate, as activists claim, it would defeat the farm’s purpose and fail to explain how it produces so many for market, Hansel said.

The Jewett Road farm raises up to 150,000 Perdue Rocky free range and Rosie organic chickens from eggs hatched in Windsor. They are harvested after seven weeks, Hansel said.

“I think as humans, we’re all able to voice our opinion, you know?” she added. “It’s their choice if they don’t want to eat meat.”

Sonoma County has 17 percent of the production share of the state’s laying hens, explaining in some part the local focus of animal welfare activists.

But concern about future actions by activists spans the membership of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said Executive Director Tawny Tesconi.

Those with dairy cows, cattle and sheep worry about potential actions against them, Weber said, given how much more difficult it might be to shore up security on larger livestock operations.

But Hsiung and Direct Action Everywhere spokesman Matt Johnson also suggested that Sonoma County may be strategic in part because of its support for wholesome foods and progressive ideals, where consumers would want to know if conditions threatened the well-being of animals or safety of their food.

Tesconi said that’s a good reason to trust the farmers here.

“We’re very, very focused on animal welfare. We’re very focused on sustainability,” she said. “We kind of started the organic movement here.”

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