Warning: This article contains images that some might find distressing
Earlier this month, animal rights activist and attorney Wayne Hsiung was found guilty of felony conspiracy and misdemeanor trespass charges in a high-profile animal rescue case.
Hsiung was convicted after an eight-week trial, which included six days of jury deliberation.
Alongside other activists from the international animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), Hsiung openly rescued animals and provided emergency medical aid to animals at two factory farms in Sonoma County.
Zoe Rosenberg, a fellow rescuer from DxE, insists that this case will not stop the group from doing what they do. “We are not going to stop rescuing animals we find in situations of distress,” she tells Plant Based News in an interview after the guilty verdict.
“Right to Rescue” sick animals
Hsiung is a co-founder of DxE, which is leading a campaign to enshrine the legal “Right to Rescue” sick and injured animals from commercial operations.
In Sonoma County, over 100 people affiliated with DxE were arrested on felony charges for their part in non-violent demonstrations where activists provided emergency medical aid to sick and injured animals at Sunrise Farms (a Whole Foods and Costco egg supplier), and Reichardt Duck Farm (a major duck meat supplier).
In total, 38 chickens and 32 ducks were removed from the facilities by the activists.
“DxE investigators have been investigating and exposing Sunrise since 2016,” Rosenberg explains. “In the first investigation, DxE found that they were in violation of Proposition 2, which was an animal welfare law that banned battery cages and extreme confinement of chickens.”
When DxE reported these cramped conditions to the authorities, however, they took no action against the facilities. So, the investigators went back in 2017. “We exposed even more criminal animal cruelty,” she adds.
Rosenberg says there were chickens trapped in wire and dead birds on the floor. “Yet every time that DxE investigated this facility and reported it to the authorities, nothing changed and nothing happened. That’s obviously what prompted Wayne, myself, and others to take action to rescue the animals in 2018.”
Locked up for caring
Upon hearing the verdict, Hsiung was cuffed and taken immediately into custody. He will be held until his sentencing hearing on Thursday, November 30th.
In a blog post, published by his team after the verdict, Wayne wrote: “Over the last 20 years, the corporations who profit from the torture of animals have used shadow and subterfuge to deceive millions of Americans.
“As I said in my closing, giving aid to those who need help is not the worst in us. It’s the best in us. I believe, when we all begin listening to our hearts, the world will see this, too.”
Rosenberg adds: “Wayne is for the most part in good spirits. He’s very grateful for the opportunity to use his incarceration to further elevate animal rights and share the stories of animals who are being criminally abused in Sonoma County.”
The conditions of the animals
In the trial, Hsiung was not allowed to use nearly all photo and video evidence showing animal cruelty at the factory farms where the rescues occurred.
“Injustice was woven throughout the trial,” DxE’s Alison Morikawa Barnard tells PBN. “I witnessed the judge block the media from recording the trial, put a gag order on the defendant, and block almost all animal cruelty evidence from the jury.
“This injustice has only strengthened our determination to expose this broken system and to create a world where the right to rescue is the law of the land.”
The mass open rescue at Sunrise Farms was prompted by investigations between 2016 and 2018, which found that Sunrise was confining tens of thousands of birds in 15-foot tall rows of tightly packed cages. The footage showed many birds inside who were sick, dying, or dead. Investigators also found violations of California’s animal cruelty statute, Penal Code 597, including injured birds who were unable to access food or water.
Rosenberg describes what she saw: “There were ducks displaying neurological symptoms, falling onto their backs, unable to right themselves. It’s heartbreaking: you just see these little ducklings, they fall on their backs, they’re powering their legs, they cannot get up, they’re dying of dehydration and starvation, and they’re suffocating under their own weight; their wings get stuck in the wire as they’re struggling to get up; their backs are bloody and bruised and when we pleaded with the authorities to do something, they repeatedly failed to act.”
Conviction follows earlier acquittals
Hsiung’s conviction follows two groundbreaking acquittals in other open rescue cases.
Last year, Hsiung was acquitted of felony burglary and theft in a piglet rescue case in St. George, Utah. Earlier in 2023, he successfully led the legal defense for another DxE animal rescuer who was acquitted of theft in Merced, California.
Hsiung plans to appeal the conviction based on several rulings by Judge Laura Passaglia that DxE believes constitute prejudicial and reversible error.
“The prosecution was very strategic,” says Rosenberg. “Right before the trial, they dropped all the burglary and theft charges because the ‘thing’ that was supposedly stolen was sick, dying animals and they did not want the jury to hear about sick and dying animals.
“A trial about exposing animal cruelty ended up not allowing it to be shown in court.”
Prosecution won’t stop animal rescuers
During the five-year prosecution of Hsiung and other activists, and even during the trial itself, DxE investigators continued to document animal cruelty at Sunrise Farms and Reichardt Duck Farm.
After the verdict was announced, DxE activists went straight from the courtroom to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office to once again report criminal animal cruelty at factory farms in the county. They delivered a letter with their findings, including photos taken at the two facilities in recent weeks.
Rosenberg is adamant: “Open rescue is one of the most powerful tools that we have to challenge animal cruelty.
“When you look into a factory farm and you see thousands of animals suffering, it’s so easy to desensitize yourself and get lost in the numbers and the immeasurable suffering. But when you identify an individual and connect with them, it’s life changing. Every single one of those animals in those facilities is an individual.”
She adds: “We’re continuing to blow the whistle on the criminal animal cruelty that’s happening in Sonoma County and to pressure law enforcement to take action. We want to see these companies held accountable and get these animals out of these conditions to animal sanctuaries.”