Do people have a right to rescue animals from suffering? And, more than that, should animals have the right to live a life free of suffering? These questions could be answered by a Sonoma County trial now underway in Northern California.
The defendants — Wayne Hsiung, Cassandra King and Priya Sawhney — face trespass charges for providing medical care and removing 70 chickens and ducks from three different factory farms: Reichardt Duck Farm, Sunrise Farms and Petaluma Poultry. The tactic, known as open rescue, is growing in popularity amongst animal rights activists and often takes place in broad daylight.
According to a representative with Direct Action Everywhere, attorneys for Costco and Whole Foods, among others, were present in the courtroom in response to defense subpoenas for evidence relating to conditions on one of the farms. The judge ultimately granted motions filed by Whole Foods, Costco and the American Humane Association to quash those subpoenas. A press release from the group indicates that Cassandra King has officially been dismissed from the case. She made the following statement to the court: “Just because I’ll no longer have a trial and won’t be able to be acquitted, I want to say I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong by rescuing animals being subjected to criminal animal cruelty.”
Is It Rescue or Trespass?
According to one of the defendants, the activists removed 70 birds in total from the three farms, all of whom were in need of immediate veterinary attention.
Yet prosecutors announced September 1 that they would be amending the charges to remove those related to theft and burglary, effectively limiting what evidence the defendants could offer as evidence. According to sources inside the courthouse, the judge stated that “the general condition of the [factory farms] is not relevant” now that the theft charges will be dropped.
The same day, the judge placed an order preventing all three defendants and attorneys from speaking to the press, further stifling their ability to discuss the conditions of the farms. Defendants filed a motion on Friday September 8 asking the judge to vacate the gag order on First Amendment grounds, which was denied on September 13. The gag order will stay in place until the jury has been sworn in and instructed. Since the defendants are unable to speak to the press themselves, the group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) said via their X (formerly Twitter) account tracking the trial, that the move was made “in an effort to keep evidence of animal cruelty away from the jury.”
The evidence is damning. Among the materials they submitted to the court were images and videos of birds stuck in their cages, unable to move or access food and water. They document open wounds, birds with prolapsed vents and numerous dead animals among the living birds.
Several months prior in February, the District Attorney dropped charges related to the Petaluma Poultry farm following a preliminary hearing that revealed many of their “free-range” chickens didn’t have any access to the outdoors.
Once examined, a veterinary report from Sonoma County Animal Services found that birds rescued from Petaluma Poultry were “not able to stand on their own.” Though according to the report all of the “living birds are in poor health and are in distress,” one had an open wound on their wing that went all the way to the bone.
In addition to the nine live birds examined by the veterinarian, six dead chickens were also evaluated. Of these, several were in advanced states of decay and had likely been dead for numerous days.
According to a legal opinion provided by University of California Law San Francisco Professor Hadar Aviram, the suffering documented in video footage at the farms is enough that the activists “should be able to successfully argue for a necessity defense against any charges of trespass or misappropriation.”
The defense referenced by Aviram stems from California laws protecting those who act illegally, in this case by trespassing, in order to “prevent further harm.”
The Sonoma County Prosecutor’s office declined to comment to Sentient Media.
Defending Open Rescue
Open rescue is the newest tactic for animal rights activists with The Simple Heart Initiative, Hsiung’s latest project, which provides training and other resources to would-be participants.
So far it’s proven an effective tactic for activists to advance their cause. In October of last year, a court in Utah acquitted two activists — including Hsiung — who entered a pig farm and removed two piglets, though the right to rescue was apparently less important to the Smithfield jury than the argument that sick animals aren’t of any economic value to the farm, according to new research by the group Faunalytics.
Again in March two activists were acquitted after removing two chickens, worth $8.16 each, from a truck outside a slaughterhouse; this time in Merced, CA.
For the defendants in the ongoing case, the stakes are high. “Enshrining [the right to rescue] could open the door to a new view of animals under the law — as legal persons, rather than ‘property’,” Cassandra King wrote prior to the court’s gag order.
The trial is expected to last two weeks or longer as activists take the stand to make the case for the right to rescue, and for farm animals to live a life free from suffering.
This piece has been updated September 14 with the latest developments in the case provided by Direct Action Everywhere and Simple Heart. This piece was updated earlier to correct the spelling of Professor Hadar Aviram’s name.
Grace is an avid writer and advocate with a passion for exploring animal rights from a social justice lens. She brings almost a decade of varied experience within the animal rights movement to her work as staff writer at Sentient Media.