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Four activists who targeted Petaluma poultry farms appear in court

Four animal welfare activists facing felony charges related to large demonstrations at three Petaluma poultry farms got their first peek at the case Sonoma County prosecutors have built against them during a preliminary hearing Tuesday.

The defendants, Wayne Hsiung, Priya Sawhney, Cassandra King and Almira Tanner, face felony charges of grand theft, commercial burglary and felony conspiracy to commit a crime in the demonstrations, which played out at Sunrise Farms; McCoy’s Poultry Services, where chickens are raised for meat; and Reichardt Duck Farm in 2018 and 2019.

The hearing, in which Judge Christopher Honigsberg will determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence for the case to proceed to a trial, will continue Wednesday morning in Courtroom 1.

The four are members of Direct Action Everywhere, a Berkeley-based animal welfare group that says its mission is to bring attention to the suffering of commercially raised animals and provide relief to the animals when they can.

But Mike Weber, one of the owners of Sunrise Farms, an egg producer on Liberty Road northwest of Petaluma, testified during Tuesday’s preliminary hearing that it was demonstrators who trespassed onto the Liberty Road property on May 29, 2018, who put chickens at risk, not employees.

Activists who entered two buildings on the property that housed chickens did not follow biohazard safety protocols that are intended to prevent the introduction of diseases in his flock, such as undergoing footwear disinfection, Weber said.

A photograph of a group of demonstrators walking away with chickens removed from the buildings also showed the way the demonstrators positioned the chickens in their arms had the potential to kill them, Weber said.

“They’re strangling them. This is absolutely the wrong way to hold a chicken,” Weber said of the photograph, which was displayed in the courtroom on a large screen.

“This is a violation of animal welfare,” he later added, motioning to the photograph.

Weber also co-owns Weber Family Farms, a family-run business dating back to 1912 that leases the Liberty Road property to Sunrise Farms, he said during the hearing.

Live video taken by someone who refers to themselves as a Direct Action Everywhere volunteer and “investigator” was also played during Tuesday’s preliminary hearing. It shows a crowd that Weber describes as starting with about 100 people but eventually swelling to up 500 walking through the Liberty Road property.

They ignore requests from Webster and other staff to leave the property and activists are seen crowding the entryway to one of the buildings housing a flock of chickens, where Weber said activists pushed past employees.

The live video also shows one of the demonstrators, Wayne Hsiung, telling Weber and other employees that they have photographs of chickens in poor condition, including some that show chickens with sores on their face.

Hsiung also repeatedly cites a penal code that he says allows him to be on the property.

“We just ask for the right to inspect” Hsiung says in the video while speaking to another Sunrise Farms owner.

Prosecutors also showed a video shot by Weber, in which he tried to capture the condition of the chickens taken by the protesters. He notes in the video that they are fully feathered and that their feet and eyes look “great.”

“I was anticipating this day, when I would take the stand,” Weber said when Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Bob Waner asked why he took the video.

Izaak Schwaiger, a local civil rights attorney representing Hsiung, pushed back on Weber’s comment that the way the demonstrators were holding the chickens was harmful.

The code referenced by his client Hsiung, Penal Code 597e, allows anyone to supply a confined animal with food and water in cases when that animal is without those for more than 12 consecutive hours, Schwaiger added.

Days before the demonstration, Direct Action Everywhere had received whistle blower videos and photos indicating birds on the farm were in poor health, Schwaiger said.

“The prosecution, they’ve overcharged the case,” Schwaiger said.

“This is not what people think of, certainly not the Legislature, when they wrote these penal codes,” he added, referencing the felony burglary and conspiracy to commit a crime charges.

He and the other attorneys who are representing the four activists are working pro bono, he added.

The protest at Reichardt Duck Farm on June 3, 2019, billed by protesters as another attempt to spur on local authorities to investigate alleged animal cruelty, swelled to 300 demonstrators, nearly a third of whom were arrested. Most of those detained by the 50 local and state law enforcement officers who responded were booked on suspicion of trespassing and felony conspiring to commit a crime, authorities said.

A Sept. 29, 2018, demonstration at McCoy’s Poultry Services resulted in about 15 chickens being taken from the farm. About 67 people were arrested in that action, including Hsiung, King, Sawhney and Tanner.

The four activists face additional misdemeanor charges of trespassing, unlawful assembly and petty theft, an amended charging document filed with the Sonoma County Superior Court on July 26, 2019 shows.

On Tuesday, about 15 people wearing blue Direct Action Everywhere shirts watched the preliminary hearing play out in Courtroom 1.They were joined by four people who donned green shirts with the Sonoma County Farm Bureau logo, among them bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi, who declined to comment.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   

 

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