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Six protesters involved in a September animal welfare demonstration at a Petaluma poultry farm when about 15 chickens were taken from the property are facing felony burglary, theft and trespassing charges, the Sonoma County district attorney’s office confirmed this week.

The Sept. 29 demonstration at McCoy’s Poultry Services on Jewett Road was at least the third demonstration in about 14 months at Sonoma County agricultural businesses, generating great concern among local farmers that they were being targeted by out-of-county animal welfare groups.

Wayne Hsiung, 37, of Berkeley, one of the protesters charged for his actions during that September protest, said he and others believed they were following laws allowing them to provide water and food to neglected animals when they went onto the Petaluma property to help chickens that appeared to be in distress. Sonoma County animal officers took custody of 15 chickens taken by the protesters, including six that were dead, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

“The action that we took was not trespassing; it wasn’t an attack on Sonoma County,” said Hsiung, an East Bay tax attorney. “What we’re trying to do is ensure the laws are being enforced and animals are protected.”

Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi, called the animal welfare protesters “domestic terrorists” at a workshop held last month with about 70 farm bureau members to discuss how farmers can prevent trespassing and respond if demonstrators show up at their property lines.

“They’re terrorizing poor farmers — that’s my view,” Tesconi said in an interview this week.

Representatives from the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices recommended local ranchers tighten security with fences, lights and surveillance cameras.

Matt Johnson, a spokesman for the Bay Area chapter of animal welfare group Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, has said members first conducted surveillance to gather what they thought was evidence of mistreatment of the animals prior to demonstrating at McCoy’s Petaluma poultry farm. They also made repeated attempts to encourage the county District Attorney Jill Ravitch to investigate their allegations of animal abuse, he said.

“These farmers don’t have a choice, they have to do inhumane things to cut costs to meet the demands of these corporate food companies,” Johnson said. “The reasons we have to go to the front lines is to hold accountable the real companies that have the control here.”

The protests involved members DxE’s Bay Area chapter whose mission is “total animal liberation.”

The events included the September event at the McCoy property, a May 29 event at an egg farm on Liberty Road that drew an estimated 500 people and smaller “vigils” held in August 2017 outside Petaluma Poultry Processors slaughterhouse on Lakeville Highway, which was organized by another group, Bay Area Animal Save, which shares some members with DxE.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Capt. Jim Naugle said law enforcement’s role is to balance the right of protesters to gather and exercise their First Amendment rights with the rights of private property owners. He said the series of demonstrations appear to show an escalation in tactics from peaceful protests to trespass and theft.

“Our concern is the trespass and the theft of the animals,” Naugle said.

Ravitch said her office filed charges only after reviewing all of the evidence including extensive body camera video and other reports. The Sheriff’s Office arrested 67 people in September and apart from the six people facing felony charges, most received misdemeanor citations or letters offering pretrial diversion programs.

Hsiung was arraigned Friday alongside Cassandra King, 20, of Berkeley; Priya Sawhney, 29, of Berkeley; and Almira Tanner, 31, of San Jose on multiple felony crimes including conspiracy, burglary and theft as well as misdemeanor crimes of petty theft, trespass and unlawful assembly.

King is a recent graduate and Sawhney and Tanner have fellowships from a nonprofit supporting their work promoting animal welfare. The names of the two others to be arraigned Friday weren’t immediately available.

The group has retained Sebastopol attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who in a recent interview defended their right to stand up for their beliefs.

“My clients did not do anything wrong even if people say they did something illegal,” Schwaiger said. “What’s important here is the criminal justice system is being used as a hammer against people who are trying to make a difference in the world.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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