The rise in animal activist so-called “open rescue” missions involving trespassing on private farm property to save alleged “abused, starving and dying chickens” has increased steadily in recent years, including break-ins to hen-houses in violation of strict biosecurity protocols.
While police have arrested and detained some demonstrators, in many cases perpetrators have been charged with misdemeanors and quickly released. In the past, authorities have often reduced or downgraded charges rather than prosecute offenders to the full extent of the law, even though several of these actions qualify as felony burglaries. Now judges and district attorneys in affected counties are getting tough.
In a precedent-setting decision on December 19, 2018, San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Michael Mulvihill ordered Direct Action Everywhere (DXE) activists Jason Oliver and Paul Picklesimer to pay $331,991.60 in restitution to the owners of Pleasant Valley Farms (PVF) of Farmington, California. Felony charges have also been filed for other arrested defendants.
This event unfolded in a similar way to others in the past. The activists were charged with and pled guilty to misdemeanor trespassing for breaking in to one of PVF’s barns housing about 45,000 egg-laying hens on October 18, 2016, saying their intent was to “rescue” one of the hens they suspected was being mistreated. Deputy District Attorney Stephen K. Maier, in charge of quality of life crimes for San Joaquin County, provided a statement of the facts released by the county that provided background on this case.
According to the report, the possibility of a violation of biosecurity rules, PVF owners Richard and Jerry Jenkins immediately stopped all sales of eggs from the potentially affected
hens. He noted that the Jenkins are fiercely protective of their well-deserved reputation for supplying cage-free and organic eggs of the highest quality to customers – including Costco.
Rather than risk the very existence of their family business due to a claim of contamination of the food supply, they depopulated the flock, even though the chickens were only 69 weeks old (82 weeks is the normal age for depopulation). Consequently, the early depopulation of PVF’s Barn 6 meant the loss of egg production sales for between 11 and 16 weeks.
At an average production level of one dozen eggs per hen every three weeks (4 dozen eggs in 12 weeks), the Jenkins lost profits totaling just under $332,000, which the victim is to recover by way of restitution from the two defendants.
DXE had made multiple infiltrations of this private property in the past, claiming to have documented numerous violations of Costco’s animal welfare standards. In a video entitled “Cannibalism at Costco”, published by DXE on or shortly after October 18, 2016, the defendants were featured “rescuing” one hen. In response to hearing complaints from customers who saw the video and read the related story in the New York Times, Costco contacted Pleasant Valley Farms, and the Jenkins then contacted the San Joaquin County Sheriff.
After reviewing the video, the Jenkins recognized their barn as Barn 6 housing about 45,135 Hy-Line organic brown hens, aged approximately 69 weeks, since that was the only barn on their ranch with hens of that age. They also discovered damage to the locking mechanism on the doors leading to Barn 6.
They contacted two veterinarians, Dr. Richard Blatchford from U.C. Davis, and also Dr. Mark Bland to consult on what to do. Given that it was unclear what – if any – biosecurity precautions had been taken by the defendants, both vets agreed that the best course of conduct would be to immediately depopulate (euthanize) the flock due to the potential for exposure to pathogens.
The Jenkins believed that the risk of introducing contaminated eggs into the food supply, or even being accused of doing so, vastly outweighed any profit from just carrying on and selling the eggs. First, the only conceivable option would be to quarantine the chickens for some weeks while monitoring and testing them for the most likely pathogens. But this would be expensive, since there are a large number of possible pathogens. Second, and more important, they believed they could financially weather the loss of 12 weeks of eggs, but that bad publicity or a lawsuit by someone claiming to have been sickened would bankrupt the business.
According to consultant Brian Sobel, stronger teeth must be put into laws in order to protect the property rights and security of farmers, their workers, livestock and produce.
“The restitution angle may be nearly as powerful as prosecution. While the animal rights activists may make a cause celebre out of being arrested and perhaps convicted, having to pay money, or be responsible for court-imposed debt that is attached to the individual, is a whole other matter.”
In Sonoma County, Mike Weber, co-owner of Weber Family Farms, agrees that more stringent ways must be found to punish protestors who enter land and buildings illegally and cause monetary and physical damage.
“Hundreds of DXE demonstrators forced their way deep into our property on May 29, 2018 and 40 were arrested on suspicion of trespassing. They forced entry into our buildings and pushed their way through our employees trying to stop them at entrances. They entered a barn to take 37 of our chickens while making false, grossly exaggerated claims of animal abuse. A handful had Tyvek suits, but we had no idea if they were sanitary or had been used at another farm and not cleaned.”
The Sonoma County District Attorney’s office is cracking down on these perpetrators. In a Press Democrat article published January 17, reporter Mary Callahan said that “four activists that broke into the Weber Family Farm and McCoy Poultry Services face a total of 12 charges, seven of them felonies, including two counts of conspiracy, four counts of second-degree commercial burglary and one of theft of domestic fowl. Two other activists face similar charges in a separate complaint associated with the same demonstrations.” Weber said he and his workers do not mishandle chickens. “We focus on providing our hens a safe environment free of outside stress. Stressing an animal reduces egg production while increasing mortality. For generations our family has known that keeping hens happy leads to consistent egg production.”
To protect against future protests that result in unauthorized people entering their buildings, Weber said they had to invest time and resources into adding new fencing, fortifying entrances, and installing video systems to monitor their poultry facilities, instead of implementing planned projects, such as building a solar field to run the farm on energy from the sun.
According to published descriptions, DXE is an international, grassroots animal rights activist network founded in 2013 in the San Francisco Bay Area that promotes a vegan diet. DXE’s goal is to eliminate all meat production for food in the U.S. by 2040. This network started with disruptive protests but now also uses direct-action tactics, such as open-rescues of animals from farms. Their objective is to shift culture and change social and political institutions while working for “total animal liberation” and the creation of a law requiring “species equality.”