Egg farmers, animal welfare groups clash in Sonoma County

Protests began on a spring day in 2018. Around 500 demonstrators led by DxE protested outside Weber Family farms in Petaluma, Calif. Dozens of activists removed chickens they described as sick or dying. Weber Family Farms says the group's allegations of animal cruelty are untrue.

UPDATE, May 22, 3:30 p.m.: DxE denies allegations that its group members shoved and cursed at poultry farmers or made anyone feel unsafe during the May 29, 2018 demonstration. “[S]uch actions would be in direct contrast to nonviolence as one of our core values,” said DxE press coordinator Matt Johnson.

Mike Weber starts his days early at the family-owned egg farm, Weber Family Farms, in Petaluma, a North Bay city where poultry processing makes up 1.7% of all employment. As one of the facility’s owners, his younger brother is the other owner, Weber is responsible for figuring out how to get the day’s eggs cleaned, packaged and on to breakfast tables across Northern California.

But ever since a May 2018 demonstration by Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, an animal welfare group founded less than 50 miles away in Berkeley, California, Weber is concerned about his safety as he moves through his daily routine. A parked car sits at the edge of the farm.  A drone flies overhead. Weber wonders if he and his brother are being watched, if DxE is preparing for an ambush.

The protest began on a Spring day in 2018. Around 500 demonstrators led by DxE protested outside Weber’s farm. Dozens of activists removed chickens they described as sick or dying, according to The Press Democrat.

In an interview with the Peninsula Press, Weber said, “they basically rushed onto the property, rushed through all the entrances … nobody could stop them.”

Hours later, Sonoma County law enforcement arrested 40 activists for trespassing. Weber says the demonstration halted egg production.

“It affected every aspect of our operation,” he said.

That demonstration made it difficult to retain employees who were worried about harassment by activists, said Weber. Poultry workers were shoved or cursed at during the demonstration.

“That’s not something a normal employee is used to when you’re employing people to take care of your animals,” he said.

Animal welfare is at the heart of  DxE’s “open rescue” demonstrations, where activists make no attempt to cover their faces or conceal their identities as they take animals from farms. Members of DxE have spent the last few years filming injured or dying animals at farming facilities throughout Northern California in brutal conditions the group says are rampant in factory farming, and illegal under California’s animal cruelty statute.

Chickens crammed so tightly in cages that the wiring embeds into their flesh. Birds with prolapsed vaginas. Chickens attacking and devouring other chickens. Weber Family Farms says the DxE’s allegations of animal cruelty are untrue.

DxE activists say they presented their claims of animal cruelty to authorities and to Amazon and Whole Foods, who purchase poultry products from Sonoma County. No charges were filed, the group said. So DxE took action into its own hands. It infiltrated farms without permission and removed what it claimed were sickened animals.

Gum up the gears

Wayne Hsiung, 37, co-founded DxE in 2013. Before that, Hsiung worked as a consumer fraud and animal law attorney after studying behavioral law and economics at the University of Chicago.

Understanding the law involves more than merely understanding how to follow it, Hsiung said, during a January presentation at Stanford University School of Law.

“As lawyers, we also have to understand when the law should be broken,” he said.

The legal argument Hsiung uses to justify open rescue demonstrations is known as necessity defense: when a normally illegal act is justified because it would prevent the occurrence of a more serious offense.

Direct action “to gum up the gears of the system” can be legally justified, Hsiung said, when all three of the following criteria are met: an injustice is systemic, the victim of the injustice is disenfranchised and the injustice lacks public awareness. DxE open rescues respond to situations that fit all three criteria, Hsiung said, and therefore the demonstrations should be seen as legally justified operations.

“When these three factors come in together … sometimes we do just have to break the law in order to change it,” Hsiung said.

Other lawyers disagree. Hsiung is facing 12 criminal charges in Sonoma County Superior Court, including four counts of second-degree felony burglary, two counts of felony criminal conspiracy, and one count of felony grand theft, for his role in two open rescue demonstrations in Petaluma.

Five DxE activists face similar charges and more than a dozen others have been charged with misdemeanor trespass, according to defense attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who is representing the activists.

Schwaiger said it is generally understood that prosecutors “overcharge” to encourage defendants to take plea bargains. What is unusual, Schwaiger said, is the conspiracy charges.

“In Sonoma County, nobody gets charged with conspiracy,” he said.

The Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office said it would not comment on the cases since they are ongoing.

To fight their case, the defendants are relying on a legal argument that allows for entering a private facility where an animal is being mistreated if the intent is to assist the animal.

“We really feel like we’re laying the groundwork for potentially historic victories,” DxE press coordinator Matt Johnson said.

Schwaiger said the district attorney’s office, headed by Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, is going for “low-hanging fruit” by prosecuting DxE members “instead of the more difficult job of attacking the industry that is well entrenched here in Sonoma County.”

“We are not friends with Jeff Bezos”

Poultry is big business in Petaluma. Petaluma Poultry Processor is the city’s second largest employer, trailing only Petaluma School District in terms of resident employment, according to a 2018 report.

Mike Weber, the co-owner of Weber Family Farms, says the rhetoric of animal rights activists about corporate farming and big agriculture distorts the reality of how his family farm operates. Weber Family Farms was started in the 19th century by his great-grandfather and it remains family-owned.

“We are not billionaires, we are not friends with Jeff Bezos,” Weber said. “We’re two farmers who grew up here in Petaluma.”

The fourth-generation poultryman insists claims of animal cruelty and inadequate care at Weber Family Farms are false.

“We have always complied with all of the different laws that regulate how eggs are to be produced [and] how animals are to be treated,” he said. “And most importantly, we spend a considerable amount of time on animal welfare and making sure birds are healthy.”

It is difficult for Sonoma County farmers to find common ground with DxE because the group opposes animal consumption or use in agriculture of any kind, said Weber.

“If I had 10 chickens I would still be their enemy,” he said.  “They have no idea what it’s like to provide and be a caretaker for the animals …They’re really not adding anything to the animal welfare discussion.”

Weber calls DxE as an “extremist group” of “agricultural terrorists” that disrupts operations and steals livestock.

“They’re terrorizing us,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Scare word

“I think that people see that [terrorist] is pretty transparently just a scare word that they’re trying to label us with,” said Johnson, DxE’s press coordinator. In reality, DxE members are regular people who care about animal rights. They are not terrorists, he said.

In a February blog post, DxE member Priya Sawhney, who participated in the open rescue at Weber Family Farms, said cases against DxE members were “merely the latest in a systematic effort by groups to flex their political influence and abuse the legal system to disparage and discredit peaceful activists as criminals.”

If what DxE is doing is terrorism, defense attorney Schwaiger said, “the words would cease to have any meaning.”

However the demonstrations are characterized, Weber says DxE’s activities have harmed farmers. As poultry workers move through their routine — checking feed, cleaning nests, observing egg flow, watching water pressure, looking for sick or injured birds — they have to worry about potential demonstrations or open rescues.

Earlier this year, a dairyman neighbor told Weber he saw someone in the area taking pictures with a long-range camera.

Johnson said DxE does not “take any pleasure in causing anyone any sort of suffering and any discomfort.” But he said discomfort is an inevitable part of dismantling what activists consider an inhumane industry. “We want to have empathy for all individuals, not just animals, but humans that are caught up in these systems,” he said.

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