A US activist took a sick goat from a meat farm – now he faces seven years in jail | Animal welfare


THEOn a rainy night in February 2018, animal rights activist Wayne Hsiung infiltrated a small North Carolina farm and, depending on your perspective, stole or rescued a kid. The maneuver was very risky – live, Hsiung tells his audience what to expect: an electric fence, barking dogs and armed security guards, according to the farm’s website.

Undeterred, Hsiung and his co-conspirators filled their pockets with dog treats and stormed into Sospiro Farm, owned by farmer Curtis Burnside.

β€œOne of the reasons we’re doing this today is that we want to show the world – whether it’s factory farming or a small-scale farm – [that] these animals don’t deserve to die, ”Hsiung says to the camera, his face bathed in red light. “And we believe that intentionally killing an animal is criminal cruelty to animals.”

Hsiung is now hoping North Carolina jurors will agree with his interpretation of the law. In a landmark case that could predict the future of the law to save animals in distress, he faces up to six and a half years in prison on charges of theft and break and enter, based on what the video shows it doing then.

In the dark, Hsiung and others from the activist organization he co-founded, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), cross the electric fences of the farm towards a barn. After appeasing the guard dogs with Vegan peanut butter treats, Hsiung finds what he’s looking for: a kid – sick, he believes – in a small pen with his mother. They escape with the unharmed goat, but Hsiung accidentally drops a crucial piece of evidence: his driver’s license.

Burnside, who did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment, alerted authorities after finding the license in the morning.

Hsiung was apparently unaware of this – he went on to live his life, naming the baby goat Rain in the meantime. Then, three months later, when he Back in North Carolina for a vegan festival, he is arrested at Asheville airport. As the person who physically transported the goat on the live broadcast and left his ID card, Hsiung, alone among his co-conspirators, is charged with the crime.

Hsiung, now 40, has had many run-ins with the law during his 15 years of animal rights activism. In 2007, after what he said was a “peaceful protest” against the use of fur in fashion outside a Burberry store in Chicago, criminal charges were laid against him. (He takes credit for DxE’s name for spearheading the California fur ban in 2019 – DxE played a pivotal role in his deaths in Berkeley and San Francisco.) Still, the charges against him, he says, have always been dropped – until now.

“What we have seen over the past four years is a dramatic escalation in the number and severity of charges against animal rights activists,” Hsiung said on the phone from North Carolina days before his awaited court verdict. He sees this as a desperate attempt by the farm lobby to keep its practices opaque, in light of growing public concern for animal welfare and awareness of the environmental impacts of farming.

Wayne Hsiung saves a turkey at Pitman's farm in Utah.
Hsiung saves a turkey at Rick Pitman’s farm in Utah. Photography: Direct action everywhere

“A motley group of local activists carrying out open rescues, mobilizing people, investigating abusive facilities and ultimately achieving social change has come as a shock to the industry,” he said. “They cracked down very hard.”

Farmers give many reasons to reject activists. People break into properties where farmers often live with their families and, they say, are steal valuable livestock and threaten to undermine livelihoods when they make allegations of animal abuse. In Burnside’s case, Hsiung was a repeat offender. On his blog, Burnside calls Hsiung an β€œanimal rights terrorist” and accuses him of stealing baby animals as a marketing tactic for DxE.

Did Hsiung really have to trespass on private property and run away with a child to make an animal rights statement?

β€œThere is a phenomenon in psychology called the identifiable victim effect,” Hsiung explains, of his choice to perform and live stream open rescues. β€œWhen you reduce some kind of atrocity or global suffering through the prism of one individual, it suddenly becomes much more vivid and powerful,” he says. “We try to tell a story of individual animals in a way that really touches people.”

For him, it’s also about breaking what he believes to be a myth: benevolent little farms, which can speak of free-range and happy animals, but which in fact can shelter cramped living conditions, do not provide veterinary care, and slaughter animals.

β€œIt’s important that people understand that our goal is never to target the individuals involved,” Hsiung says. “In many ways, [farmers] are also victims of the system ”- a deeply rooted agricultural system into which some farmers are born or to which they turn to provide for their families, despite their own moral ambivalence about slaughtering animals for profit.

Hsiung says some farmers sympathize with his cause, even after he takes their animals. In 2017, Hsiung took a sick turkey from the farm of Utah farmer Rick Pitman and documented the poor conditions inside, filming injured and sick turkeys, in a similar act of subterfuge. Later, when DxE was protesting outside one of Pitman’s slaughterhouses, Pitman invited the protesters inside and started a dialogue. The following year, Pitman and Hsiung pardoned 100 turkeys from the farm for Thanksgiving.

If Hsiung were acquitted of the charges against him in his ongoing trial, it could set a legal precedent for the “right to save” farm livestock. Thirty-one states have the right to rescue laws aimed primarily at protecting people from legal action if they get into hot cars to rescue dogs in distress. Hsiung and other activists want more protections provided to those who rescue any animal in distress – not just pets.

But for now, he is awaiting the outcome of the trial, which began on November 27. Confronted with prison for the first time, Hsiung began to think about what it would be like to be imprisoned.

“There are days when I feel good … the possibility of being incarcerated, because I know that it is often what [activists] have to do to get the attention and political momentum we need, ”he said.

But his political mission is not the only thing that interests him in life. β€œThe other days, I think about my personal life. I am 40 years old, I would like to have children one day, I don’t even have time to date someone and I would like to spend more time with my father in his later years ”, as well as with his elderly cat, he says sadly. “And I’ll have less time if I’m in jail.”

For Rain, at least, the future isn’t so busy. After receiving treatment for the pneumonia he had during his rescue, he lives in a sanctuary. There, at least, says Hsiung, “he’s safe and happy.”


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