Animal-rights protesters rattle Petaluma poultry farmers

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Tensions between animal rights activists and Sonoma County officials remained high Monday after 58 protesters were arrested this weekend attempting to take chickens from a Petaluma poultry farm.

The Saturday protest at McCoy’s Poultry Services marked the third large animal-rights demonstration organized by the Bay Area chapter of Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, in Petaluma this year.

The group said late Monday it plans to stage a protest at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office this afternoon after those arrested this weekend appeared in court to demand charges against protesters be dropped, claiming their actions were lawful rescue of animals, said Matt Johnson, a spokesman for the group.

Law enforcement officials condemned the latest protest in Petaluma as illegal and disruptive, while animal-rights activists called the action necessary to send a message and save the lives of chickens they described as lethargic, malnourished and injured.

The protesters were arrested on suspicion of felony burglary, conspiracy and misdemeanor trespassing, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum said Monday. All but six who were booked into Sonoma County jail were released on bail by Monday morning, he said. Each had $20,000 bail, and all were from outside Sonoma County, according to the sheriff’s office.

The repeated protests have put farmers on edge in Petaluma, a city long known for its deep roots in the poultry industry. And it prompted the Sonoma County Farm Bureau to host an Oct. 29 workshop to inform agrarians of their rights in preparation for potential demonstrations.

“I don’t expect this is going to be over, just because of the tenacity of these people,” Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Executive Director Tawny Tesconi said. “This isn’t the first time (activists have protested) but this organization chooses to unlawfully protest. It’s the first time a farmer was hurt and I hope this doesn’t go beyond this level of unlawfulness. It’s getting out of hand.”

The owner of McCoy’s Poultry and an employee were assaulted on Saturday as protesters attempted to swarm the Jewett Road facility, Crum said. Hector Santurio, a 61-year-old Fairfield resident, was arrested in connection with the assault, in which the owner was pushed and the employee was scratched, Crum said.

Shawn McCoy, who manages McCoy’s Poultry, on Monday declined to comment. Andrea Straub, a spokeswoman for Perdue, which contracts with McCoy’s to grow chickens for its Petaluma Poultry brands, said in an email Monday the “welfare of the birds that are being raised for our company is paramount” at the farm. She said the farm is certified organic and subject to welfare inspections.

“These protesters illegally entered the property of this farm family, caused physical violence to the farmer, put the chickens at risk by traumatizing them and introduced disease to the thousands of chickens inside the houses by not following proper bio-security,” Straub wrote.

DxE targeted Sonoma County because of the prevalence of what the group’s spokesman referred to as “humane washing,” in which farms purport to be using humane practices for “PR value.” McCoy’s claimed to have free range chickens, but DxE claimed that was not the case.

“We’re focusing on Sonoma County because of the proximity; we have a lot of folks in the Bay Area and the nearest Whole Foods farms are in Sonoma County,” Johnson, the DxE spokesman, said. “The proximity and the humane washing are the two biggest factors.”

Johnson said a section of the California penal code allows the group to provide aid to the animals and “legal necessity” allows the group to remove the animals to prevent what he described as inevitable future abuse.

Crum said the “highly regulated” farm facilities are routinely investigated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. He said the penal code the DxE spokesman referenced is not applicable and the group’s conduct is unlawful.

“They feel they have the legal authority to come onto anyone’s property at any time they want to go in and save animals,” Crum said. “Our position is that they don’t have that legal authority to come onto people’s farms, shove them out of the way and take chickens out of their barns.”

On Saturday, Sonoma County Animal Services took 15 chickens from McCoy’s Poultry. Six were dead and nine were malnourished and ultimately euthanized, Sonoma County Department of Health Services spokesman Rohish Lal said. Necropsy reports will be sent to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

“With any flock of chickens there is always some small amount of mortality,” the Perdue spokeswoman said. “Our investigation on the farm so far has shown that the chickens were being cared for properly with plenty of food and water.”

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents Petaluma, condemned the protests. Farmers have installed lights and additional security systems in fear of being targeted, he said.

“There’s no difference from someone going into a barn than if they were breaking into a house and taking your pet and saying you’re not taking care of it … it’s totally not OK,” he said.

Activists have recently held protests at Petaluma Poultry and a Whole Foods supermarket in the city and Sunrise Farms near Petaluma, Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons said.

For Berkeley lawyer Jon Frohnmayer, who counsels the Direct Action Everywhere animal-rights group, it’s not a cause to be easily abandoned. He was one of those arrested Saturday in Petaluma and said he has amassed eight felonies stemming from such protests.

“I think that every single one of these chickens is an individual,” Frohnmayer said. “I don’t know what their experience of life and the world is but I don’t think it’s fundamentally different than my own. If I had the chance to get even one more out, I think that would be worth massive consequences to me.”

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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