Dozens of animal welfare activists arrested after large protest at Petaluma chicken farm
One of the largest animal welfare demonstrations ever held at a Sonoma County farm ended Tuesday with the peaceful arrests of 40 activists on suspicion of trespassing at an egg production facility northwest of Petaluma.
An estimated 500 demonstrators rallied for more than three hours across the street from a farm on Liberty Road north of Rainsville Road. Along with egg production barns, the property houses the offices of Sunrise Farms, one of the North Bay’s largest egg producers.
Before sheriff’s deputies arrived, dozens of activists walked onto the farm and took away about 10 chickens that were sick or dying, according to organizers of the Berkeley-based group Direct Action Everywhere.
That group, also known as DXE, and affiliated organizations gathered over the past week in Berkeley for what they called their “Animal Liberation Conference.” The event, which organizers said drew 1,200 registered participants from around the U.S. and other countries, included on its website an unspecified event for Tuesday listed simply as “Action #4.”
Organizers claim the egg farm is an example of a systemic pattern of criminal animal abuse in California that isn’t being addressed by either the justice system or by state and local animal welfare agencies.
“When the law is failing us, consumers and individuals have the right, and even the obligation, to reveal what’s happening behind closed doors,” said Cassie King, one of the organizers arrested Tuesday.
King maintained that California law expressly allows the protesters the right to provide aid and care to sick and injured animals and to document violations of the state’s animal cruelty laws.
But Arnie Riebli, a partner of Sunrise Farms, said the activists’ accusations of animal abuse were unfounded.
“We know the claims they’re making are false,” Riebli said. “If not false, they are grossly exaggerated.”
Direct Action Everywhere has taken part in a series of small protests or actions on farms and production facilities near Petaluma.
In 2014, about 30 demonstrators from the group and from North Bay Animal Advocates demonstrated in front of a Petaluma slaughterhouse that recently had been reopened by Marin Sun Farms.
In 2015, the group posted a video taken by activists who at night entered an egg production facility owned by Petaluma Farms, a producer that supplies Whole Foods.
Also, last August three protesters from Bay Area Animal Save were arrested on suspicion of resisting officers at Petaluma Poultry Processors off Lakeville Highway.
DXE activists also took part in some protests at that facility, and Save members were present Tuesday on Liberty Road, organizers said.
Sheriff’s deputies responded about noon to reports of activists entering the Liberty Road farm, which is owned by Mike Weber, another partner in Sunrise Farms.
Some demonstrators entered the private property and removed about 10 chickens from the 100,000-chicken farm, said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum.
The activists withdrew to a lot across the road, where they sang freedom-themed songs and held flowers. However, they made clear that many intended to return to the farm on behalf of the remaining birds’ welfare, even if it meant arrest.
What followed was a series of negotiations that spanned about an hour, taking place at times within earshot of the news media. First, Sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Thompson and organizer Wayne Hsiung explored the possibility of Hsiung, a sheriff’s official and owner Weber walking through the farm to check on the condition of the animals. The two also considered allowing a photographer and video camera person to accompany Hsiung.
Next Hsiung and Weber spoke to each other, first with potential camera people standing beside them and later by themselves near the farm’s office.
When the two men advanced back toward the road, Weber told Hsiung he would not agree to the removal of more chickens by the activists.
“Your people stole them from me and now you’re asking for more,” Weber said.
To a reporter, Weber denied the activists’ allegations that his birds have been neglected or mistreated.
“They’re not true,” he said.
Hsiung, meanwhile, told fellow organizers that Weber wouldn’t allow photography during a visit of the farm. He returned to tell Thompson that about ?40 activists intended to walk onto the property.
Thompson sought to dissuade that move, suggesting the activists consider what they had already accomplished.
“It doesn’t make it any better that people got arrested,” the sergeant told Hsiung.
As two drones hovered overhead, a line of demonstrators holding flowers crossed the street about 3 p.m. and walked up to a line of more than a dozen officers. The officers handcuffed the activists and sat them down beside a large trailer emblazoned with the Santa Rosa Egg Farms brand and a logo that read, “Eggs can’t get any fresher.” Hsiung was among those arrested.
A large sheriff’s bus arrived to take those arrested to the Sonoma County Jail. Crum said the 40 people would be fingerprinted, photographed and given a citation to appear in court.
“It was a very peaceful arrest,” Crum said.
The remaining protesters filled at least seven large buses when they departed after the demonstration.
A stretch of Liberty Road from Center Road to Rainsville Road was closed for over an hour while the activists were being arrested, and reopened around 4:40 p.m.
Direct Action Everywhere calls for “total animal liberation” and advocates for veganism, according to its website.
Spokesman Matt Johnson said if the state’s existing anti-cruelty laws were properly enforced, “animal agriculture would essentially be nonexistent in California.”
Riebli, meanwhile, voiced concern that the activists may have contaminated the farm’s chickens by not taking proper precautions when they entered the property.
When he hosted a reporter and photographer at a different farm in 2008 during the campaign over Proposition 2, which eliminated standard-sized cages for laying hens in the state, Riebli required the journalists to don disposable coveralls and to dip the soles of their boots in a bleach solution in order to kill any bacteria that could be harmful to the hens.
Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi said it was “disappointing” that the protesters chose to come to the area. She pointed to ubiquitous cows on pastures and area farms that house hens in barns instead of cages.
“There’s so many agriculturalists that are doing their best in managing their lands and animals,” Tesconi said. “Unfortunately they’re protesting farmers that provide food for America’s tables.”
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @rdigit. You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or email@example.com. On Twitter @susanmini.