Protesters with Direct Action Everywhere plead not guilty to charges stemming from demonstration at Petaluma egg farm

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About two dozen animal welfare activists in blue T-shirts filled a Sonoma County courtroom Monday and spilled out into the hallway to show support for members of their group arrested last year on suspicion of trespassing onto a Petaluma- area poultry farm and taking chickens away.

Members of the animal rights group, Direct Action Everywhere, have staged repeated protests at Sonoma County farms where chickens and eggs are raised for food. The demonstrations, which started last year, have resulted in dozens of arrests after some activists went onto private property to, in their view, rescue chickens that appeared to be in distress.

The group’s animal welfare mission is butting up against the private property rights of farmers, who say their livelihoods are being unfairly targeted by a group opposed to raising animals for food.

Local ranchers said they are feeling threatened by the tactics of an activist group willing to trespass onto private property and take animals while risking the spread of disease.

With 21 activists facing a variety of felony and misdemeanor charges, Direct Action Everywhere’s public demonstrations have increasingly spread into the hallways of Sonoma County’s courthouse in Santa Rosa.

“Our mission is to show the public what’s happening behind these closed doors and help people make decisions,” said Wayne Hsiung, 37, a tax attorney from Berkeley and a leader within the group’s Bay Area chapter. “Our democracy can’t live without transparency. ... When we expose cruelty in factory farms and slaughterhouses, we do that with the public interest at heart.”

On Monday, activists Jon Frohnmayer, 34, and Rachel Ziegler, 26, both of Berkeley, pleaded not guilty in Sonoma County Superior Court to a total of 12 crimes, including four counts of second-degree commercial burglary and one of theft of domestic fowl. Convictions could bring a maximum sentence of seven years in jail or, at minimum, probation, according to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.

Their preliminary hearing will take place May 23 and 24, coming on the heels of another preliminary hearing for other protesters, including Hsiung, scheduled to start May 3.

After Monday’s appearance, members of the group crowded into the front lobby of the District Attorney’s Office, where they tried to get an appointment with top prosecutor Jill Ravitch.

An office representative turned the group away after accepting a letter for Ravitch imploring her office to meet with them and hear their concerns about animal conditions.

“We have videos and photographs from farms in Sonoma County that show baby chicks who are so sick and injured they cannot stand to reach food and water, hens who are trapped in wire cages for their entire lives, and birds who are cannibalizing each other due to stress and confinement,” the letter states.

Ethical rules set by the State Bar of California prohibit prosecutors from meeting with defendants without their attorneys, so it would have been improper for Ravitch to meet with them, District Attorney spokesman Brian Staebell said.

The group then left the courthouse and drove south to Petaluma, where they briefly demonstrated outside a poultry processing business on Lakeville Highway.

Last year, Frohnmayer and Ziegler were arrested at one of the large protests that drew about 500 people May 29 to Liberty Road egg producer Weber Family Farms. The group also staged a demonstration in July at Petaluma Farms, an egg farm, and again in September at McCoy Poultry Services.

Mike Weber, a fourth-generation partner with his brother in Weber Family Farms, said the series of larger demonstrations and surveillance missions have put many local farmers on edge. Weber defended his farm’s operations, which puts eggs within about two days of laying on the shelves of Northern California food sellers.

“This isn’t about animal welfare — our animal welfare is outstanding,” Weber said. “This is about animal rights and the belief in their mind that humans shouldn’t have anything to do with animals, shouldn’t consume them.”

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

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