“Open rescues,” closed jail cells, undercover video, & two challenges to “ag gags” in Canada
SANTA ROSA & LOS ANGELES, California––Mass media food sections, as always, fixated during the run-up to Thanksgiving 2023 on how best to roast turkeys.
Vegan and vegetarian media comparably focused on promoting plant-based alternatives to turkey dinners
Direct Action Everywhere founder Wayne Hsiung, however, writing from jail in Sonoma County, California, and Ronnika A. McFall of the Los Angeles-based charity Mercy for Animals, sought to redirect some attention toward activist strategies for turkey and other animal liberation from the food chain.
Blogged Hsiung in an essay entitled Why We Should Rethink Thanksgiving, “Turkey at Thanksgiving is one of the most bizarre rituals in American culture.
“First, all of us literally eat the same thing — and something we rarely otherwise eat. 85% of Americans have turkey on Thanksgiving, leading to the slaughter of over 45 million birds (and over $1 billion in sales) on a single day. It’s the most successful food marketing campaign in history.
“Second, the original act of generosity by Native Americans that inspired Thanksgiving had nothing to do with turkeys. When Squanto discovered starving Pilgrims in 1621, he brought eels and corn, not turkey. But ‘eels at Thanksgiving’ just doesn’t have the same ring.”
“That’s not how pardons are supposed to work!”
Hsiung, 42, an attorney by trade, went on to question the annual turkey “pardoning” ceremonies conducted by the U.S. President at the White House, which end by “carving up the flesh of another animal who is virtually identical to the one pardoned — a genetically engineered sibling, in fact. That’s not how pardons are supposed to work!” Hsiung objected.
“You don’t pardon one man, then execute his brother, when neither has committed any crime.
“But it gets even worse,” Hsiung said. “To show his commitment to the ag industry, President Biden gets his turkeys from Jennie-O, a subsidiary of poultry giant Hormel Foods. Jennie-O is a factory farm where a 25-pound animal is crammed with thousands of others into an indoor shed where each one receives around two square feet of space. It’s so crowded inside that the company burns the turkeys’ beaks off when they’re babies to prevent them from tearing each other to pieces when they inevitably peck each other in the farm.
“I won’t be having a ‘normal’ Thanksgiving”
“I won’t be having a ‘normal’ Thanksgiving,” Hsiung acknowledged. “I’m sitting in a Sonoma county jail. But maybe it’s time for all of us to give up some normal traditions — and leave cruelty off our Thanksgiving plates.”
Why was Hsiung in jail for Thanksgiving?
Hsiung, explained Vox deputy editor Marina Bolotnikova on November 9, 2023, “was convicted of two counts of misdemeanor trespass and one count of felony conspiracy to trespass, after six days of deliberation by a jury in Santa Rosa, California, about an hour north of San Francisco. The case emerged from Hsiung’s role in helping lead two mass protest actions in 2018 and 2019, in which activists removed 70 chickens and ducks from two Sonoma County factory farms: Sunrise Farms, a major egg supplier, and Reichardt Duck Farm.
“Activists took the animals to receive veterinary care and ultimately to live at animal sanctuaries.
A major turning point?
“The conviction represents a major turning point,” Bolotnikova assessed, “for the group Hsiung co-founded in 2013, Direct Action Everywhere.”
Direct Action Everywhere, Bolotnikova summarized, “is known for bold, uncompromising tactics, including a practice it calls ‘open rescue,’ in which activists enter factory farms, slaughterhouses, and other places where animals are exploited for profit, film conditions there, and rescue animals who are especially sick or suffering.
“With these tactics,” Bolotnikova wrote, “the activists openly invite prosecution, hoping to flip the script of a criminal trial by presenting evidence of animal cruelty to the jury and arguing that their actions were not only defensible, but necessary. Success, they hope, would set a legal precedent in favor of intervening to help animals suffering in the factory farm system.”
Not new tactic
“Open rescue” is not actually a new tactic.
Farm Sanctuary rescued a lamb in an “open rescue” situation near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as early as 1986, and was involved in another prominent “open rescue” court case in 2002.
Pasado’s Safe Haven sanctuary founder Susan Michaels (1956-2018) led a major “open rescue” of more than 250 laying hens at Lake Stevens, Washington, in February 1999, assisted by the Pigs Peace Sanctuary and the Northwest Animal Rights Network.
“Open rescue” & suicide bombing
“Open rescue” was extensively practiced for several years in Australia before the late United Poultry Concerns founder Karen Davis later in 1999 brought Australian activist Patty Mark to the U.S. to teach the technique.
But most U.S. organizations that have experimented with “open rescue” long ago abandoned it as an inefficient use of activist resources. Somewhat like suicide bombing, “open rescue” tends to expend the supply of people fanatical enough to do it long before exhausting the inertia of the target.
Ethical arguments fail with meat-eating public
Comparisons of “open rescue” to other civil disobedience tactics used successfully in human rights causes tend to lack persuasive power to the public, even when the public agrees that the animals rescued were cruelly suffering.
Partly this is because “open rescue” cases, and the associated ethical arguments, rarely get much attention. Even when they do, the publicity tends to be local.
The participants articulate enough to make a strong argument to the public, like Hsiung, tend to be locked up on charges such as breaking-and-entering and property theft that are easily understood by most people, and not easily excused when committed for what are not self-evidently persuasive reasons to non-vegetarians and vegans.
“Surprising run of success”
Hsiung and Direct Action Everywhere have won more mass media notice and sympathy for “open rescue” cases than any of their U.S. forebears.
“Before Hsiung’s conviction,” Bolotnikova observed, “Direct Action Everywhere had a surprising run of success.”
For example, Hsiung and fellow Direct Action Everywhere member Paul Darwin Picklesimer were in October 2022 “acquitted of all charges for rescuing two sick, suffering piglets from a massive Smithfield Foods factory farm in Utah,” Bolotnikova recalled.
Hsiung could get three & a half years in prison
“Then, in March 2023,” Bolotnikova continued, “activists Alicia Santurio and Alexandra Paul were acquitted in California for removing two chickens from a truck outside a slaughterhouse owned by Foster Farms, a major chicken producer.
“In both trials,” Bolotnikova wrote, “the defendants argued,” successfully, “that they had taken animals who were in such ill health that they had no commercial value to their owners,” an argument Hsiung was barely allowed to make in the Sonoma County courtroom.
“Until now,” Bolotnikova finished, “no Direct Action Everywhere activist had been sentenced to jail time for an open rescue. That’s about to change. Hsiung is now being held in jail at least until his sentencing hearing on November 30, 2023. Attorneys in the case say he could face up to three and a half years in prison.”
Nick Schafer & Amy Soranno appeal sentences
More likely, Hsiung will receive a warning sentence comparable to those meted out to Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada husband-and-wife vegan activists Nick Schafer and Amy Soranno for breaking and entering and mischief, for their part in exposing alleged animal abuse at the Excelsior Hog Farm in Abbotsford, British Columbia in April 2019.
Schafer and Soranno were on October 12, 2022 each jailed for 30 days, followed by one year on probation.
The British Columbia Court of Appeals heard their request for a retrial on November 23, 2023, while Americans celebrated Thanksgiving.
Undercover video still works after 33 years
What Schafer and Soranno were convicted of doing amounted to a hybrid of the mass invasions of poultry farms by “open rescuers” led by Hsiung in the actions bringing his conviction, and the much more widely practiced, better accepted technique of videotaping animal neglect and abuse on factory farms.
Undercover videography from inside factory farms and slaughterhouses has time and again proven persuasive to the public since Becky Sandstedt, a 31-year-old airport cocktail waitress in St. Paul, Minnesota, introduced the technique in 1990 as a lone concerned individual.
Canadian “ag gag” challenge
Seeing is believing, a picture is worth a thousand words, and beyond the clichés, undercover video of actual farm and slaughterhouse conditions can remain before the public online indefinitely, whereas video of “open rescues” tend to show much more of the human participants than of the norms for the animals involved.
Further, despite repeated attempts over decades by agribusiness to pass and obtain enforcement of so-called “ag gag” laws that would forbid or inhibit undercover videography, courts in at least six U.S. states have struck down “ag gags” as violations of the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and press with the regularity of bowlers throwing strikes.
The first challenge to a Canadian “ag gag” law went to court for initial arguments in Toronto, Ontario, on October 30, 2023, brought by Animal Justice, freelance journalist Jessica Scott-Reid, and Toronto Cow Save activist Louise Jorgensen.
The Schafer/Soranno case is an indirect challenge, since in their case the conventional charges of breaking and entering and mischief were used to effect an “ag gag”, instead of an explicit “ag gag” law.
Turkey farm video
Mercy for Animals, a pioneer of doing undercover videography that may have produced more farm and slaughterhouse documentation since 2001 than all other animal advocacy organizations combined, on November 21, 2023 “released an undercover investigation of two farms in Minnesota — the nation’s top turkey-producing state — exposing the routine cruelty that turkeys endure in the meat industry,” spokesperson Ronnika A. McFall announced.
“Certain to make Americans rethink their holiday feasts,” McFall promised, the video showed “Turkeys raised in unnatural conditions, crammed by the thousands into windowless warehouses; baby turkeys left in piles, some struggling to breathe as they lie trapped under the dead, turkeys with painful eye infections, leg or wing injuries, head bruising, slashes to their skin, and bleeding wounds denied veterinary care; baby birds left on their backs, unable to right themselves or dying of apparent sudden cardiac arrest; chicks caught in electrical wires placed where they instinctively try to perch, some electrocuted or suffering burns on their heads and feet.; and birds shoved and kicked onto conveyor belts that load them into trucks headed to the slaughterhouse, roughly grabbed by the wings and hurled inside when they fall off the belts.”
H5N1 hit turkey farms in same region
The Mercy for Animals video appeared to have been made around the same time, a month earlier, that the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy reported an H5N1 avian flu outbreak in Meeker County, Minnesota, that brought the deaths of 72,100 turkeys at one farm and more than 110,000 turkeys at other facilities in neighboring South Dakota.
Keep animals in overcrowded, unsanitary and highly stressed conditions, and disease is an inevitable consequence.
Birds & politics don’t mix well in Colorado
In Denver, Colorado, meanwhile, governor Jared Polis and “first gentleman” Marlon Reis on November 20, 2023 conducted a “turkey pardon” that reportedly sent four turkeys to a sanctuary.
Polis and Reis have cultivated an animal-friendly image that included a July 6, 2019 statement from Reis in opposition to a cull of non-migratory Canada geese.
Some of their efforts have backfired. Polis, for example, in June 2020 appointed activist Ellen Kessler to the state veterinary board, despite her evident lack of qualifications.
“Her appointment almost immediately generated controversy because of derogatory statements she made, primarily on Facebook, about farmers and ranchers,” reported Marianne Goodland for the web site Colorado Politics.
“Lazy & nasty”
“In one post a month after her appointment, Kessler said that “4-H clubs don’t teach children that animal lives matter.” She reposted a story in August 2020, also on Facebook, that alleged dairy farmers sexually abuse their cows, likely referring to artificial insemination, a routine practice for at least 60 years.
“On January 22, 2022,” Goodland continued, “Kessler called ranchers ‘lazy’ and ‘nasty,’ responding to a Facebook post by ‘first gentleman’ Marlon Reis,” and “accused ranchers of using their cows to ‘bait’ wolves in order to receive compensation for the loss of their animals.”
Kessler resigned from the Colorado veterinary board on January 24, 2022. Kessler might have been regarded as a martyr for animal advocacy, except that on January 28, 2022 a furnace repairman reported to the Colorado Humane Society severe neglect of 13 doves and cockatiels he found in Kessler’s basement, only 11 of whom survived the ordeal.
Charged on March 9, 2022 by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department with 13 counts of animal cruelty, Kessler pleaded guilty in September 2023 to a single count of misdemeanor animal cruelty. Kessler received a deferred jail sentence and was assessed fines plus costs of $1,928.50, plus attorney’s fees, veterinarian costs, and the cost of cleaning her home.