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How Chicken Activists in California Broke the Law to Start a Reasonable Debate About Animal Cruelty

A protest in Petaluma, California, prompts the question: Do we have a right to help farm animals that are suffering?

It's not every day that a professional conference—one attended by political scientists, law professors, ethicists, and journalists—culminates with a mass protest at a local egg farm.

But when Wayne Hsiung, a former law professor and the co-founder of the animal advocacy group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), took a break from the University of California–Berkeley's annual Animal Liberation Conference, where he was an invited speaker, to lead 500 protesters on a three-hour vigil at a chicken farm in nearby Petaluma, things got weird fast.

Under a blue California sky in late May, activists gathered next to Sunrise Farms to enact a carefully choreographed protest. Eighty DxE members swiftly entered the barn and removed 37 birds they knew from earlier undercover investigations to be harmed, sick, or underfed. In a sign of solidarity, about 250 protesters crossed the road onto private property. When the police arrived, about 40 of the activists, all of them trained by DxE in the tactics of civil disobedience, refused to budge. They were arrested and cuffed. The media, which had been alerted to the protest beforehand, made quick work of the scene.

This was all according to plan. DxE had pre-arranged the dress code (biohazard suits with blue DxE T-shirts over them), the signage ("funeral procession in progress"), the props (red and white carnations), and a formal statement of intent to provide police. Three days before the protest, DxE spokesperson Matt Johnson told Pacific Standard that the explicit intention was for protesters to be arrested. It was, he added, the organization's way "to start a discussion" about the treatment of animals that produce eggs for sale at Amazon/Whole Foods.

The question is: Does this kind of theater work?


Count Phil Brooks, who lives next door to the farm and works in agriculture himself, among those who were not appreciative of the media stunt. "It's bull crap," he told one news agency. A local news reporter, presenting the story in a television studio, had to suppress a smile as he noted the irony of activists who were freeing caged birds ending up in the lock up. There are even suggestions that these kind of protests can lead consumers to eat more animal products.

But two related aspects of the DxE event point to a more generous way of assessing the protest—and may even offer a model of civic engagement over hot-button issues that, in today's unusually contentious public forum, typically result in shout downs rather than good faith discourse.

First, DxE's footage of the event reveals a conscious effort on the part of activists and police to treat each other with unfailing respect. Several dozen short videos of the protest, taken by two DxE members (and made available to Pacific Standard), show protesters whose disobedience was civil to an extreme. Activists being arrested neither spoke up nor remotely resisted arrest. In many cases they placed their hands behind their back to assist police with the cuffs. Once detained, they sat nearly motionless in two rows under a truck emblazoned with the image of an egg carton and the slogan "eggs can't get any fresher."

The same videos confirm that Sonoma County police deserved equal credit for ensuring that the conflict remained peaceful. The day's most intense moment came as activists converged on private property, approaching in standoff-style a firm line of about 20 cops. It looked to be the stuff of impending disaster. But as the wall of protesters neared the police, Sergeant James Percy cordially introduced himself through a bullhorn and announced that "we do not want to injure anybody," words he uttered just as the police—again, practicing remarkable restraint—allowed protesters to infiltrate their Maginot line before insisting that everyone hold up, which they did.

Then came the arrests. As they were taking place, Hsiung reminded his group that it was engaged in "a good faith disagreement," encouraging respect of police authority. One officer, who was actively administering zip ties and urging protesters to stay off private property, complimented the activists on their cooperation, even as they refused to leave private property. "You have been the most awesome group," he told them. Before the standoff, as he discussed the developing situation with Hsiung, the same officer conceded that "you guys far outnumber us" as a psychological plea for their cooperative behavior. (I mean, he did not add, "and we have the guns.")

These de-escalating tactics used by both sides laid the basis for what turned out to be the protest's second noteworthy aspect: the introduction of a substantial legal opinion supporting the protest. In the moments before he was arrested, Hsiung presented to the police (and the media) an opinion from Hadar Aviram, a legal scholar at the University of California's Hastings School of Law. Aviram reminded authorities that California Penal Code §597e reads as follows (emphasis added):

Any person who impounds, or causes to be impounded in any pound, any domestic animal, shall supply it during such confinement with a sufficient quantity of good and wholesome food and water, and in default thereof, is guilty of a misdemeanor. In case any domestic animal is at any time/s impounded and continues to be without necessary food and water for more than 12 consecutive hours, it is lawful for any person, from time to time, as may be deemed necessary, to enter into and upon any pound in which the animal is confined, and supply it with necessary food and water so long as it remains so confined. Such person is not liable for the entry and may collect the reasonable cost of the food and water from the owner of the animal, and the animal is subject to enforcement of a money judgment for the reasonable cost of such food and water.

According to her interpretation of this code, and given the pre-existing knowledge DxE had of alleged animal malnourishment at Sunrise Farms (allegations that the farm denies), Aviram concluded that "feeders should be able to rely on §597e as defense against any accusation or charge of trespass. The section explicitly states that, under the circumstances described there, the entry unto the premises is 'lawful.'" The issue of removing birds to feed and care for them notwithstanding, Hsiung and his band of well-disciplined activists seem to have established a sound legal foundation for doing what they did. The police did not necessarily disagree, but agreed to examine the code once the property was cleared.


In the short term, the event ended as one might hope it would: with a whimper. Amazon/Whole Foods has yet to respond to DxE's request for dialogue. The farm's nonplussed owner, answering the activists' quest to allow them back inside to save more birds, simply stated, "You people stole [the birds] from me and now you're asking for more" and let the police do their work. The rescued birds, with the exception of one that died, are, according to Johnson, housed in a local farm sanctuary.

But in the longer term, this form of protest, which required restraint and thoughtfulness on all sides, introduced in a conspicuous way an idea that's central to the ethical view of even the most rabid meat-eaters: Common citizens may have a right to assist domestic animals that are suffering the deprivations of disease, hunger, and thirst.

In this respect—that is, to further a more informed debate about what we should expect from the farms that provide our animal products, the chicken activists crossed the road to serve a public interest that benefits anyone who cares about how animals are treated. Even Brooks, the local farmer who declared the trespassing "bull crap," was, when pressed, willing to concede, "I understand their point."