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Cage Match

Sonoma County Farm Bureau to host event targeted at animal-rights activists

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In late September, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office arrested 58 animal-rights protesters who were protesting—and allegedly trespassing and stealing chickens—at McCoy Poultry Services in Petaluma.

This was the third such protest this year of regional chicken-and-egg processors by the animal-rights activists at Direct Action Everywhere (DxE).

Days before the animal-rights protest and alleged chicken theft at McCoy, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau announced an upcoming forum called "Beyond the Fence Line," promoted as an informational session for farmers and ranchers in the area as they grapple with an uptick in animal-rights activism. The announcement reads: "Are you prepared for an activist targeting your farm, ranch or business? Few are. Don't wait until you are in an unfortunate situation to realize you don't have the tools you need to prepare for and manage activists."

Scheduled speakers at the Oct. 29 event include Hannah Thompson-Weeman of the national nonprofit Animal Agriculture Alliance; Mike Weber of Weber Family Farms in Petaluma; local environmental lawyer Tina Wallis; and Sonoma County Sheriff's Office (SCSO) Captain Jim Naugle. The event is being held at the Santa Rosa Junior College's Shone Farm in Forestville; tickets are $20 for Farm Bureau members and $50 for non-members. Everyone's invited to attend, according to the press release.

The rise in animal-rights activism locally arrives as state voters are being asked to vote on Proposition 12 this November. The measure sets out to revise current state law when it comes to regulations around cage-free animals, including calves, breeding pigs and egg hens.

Current state law under 2008's animal-welfare-oriented Proposition 2 says that the animals "must be able to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs." There's no cage-free mandate in the state of California, even though Proposition 2 originally set out to make California a cage-free state by 2015.

Critics of Proposition 12 have pounced on what they call an unseemly agreement between the Washington, D.C.–based Humane Society and hen-egg corporate interests such as the United Egg Producers—not to mention big egg buyers like McDonald's, which has joined with the popular and politically correct "cage-free" movement in recent years.

The state pushed out an anti-cruelty henhouse measure via Proposition 2 in 2008, and according to its intent, hens were supposed to have been cage-free for three years by now. That didn't happen, say animal-rights activists from the Humane Farming Association, Friends of Animals, and Californians Against Cruelty, Cages and Fraud. In their rebuttal to Proposition 12, they argue that the "negligent drafting" of Proposition 2 means that "millions of egg-laying hens still suffer in egg-factory cages throughout California"—and will continue to do so at least through 2022, under Proposition 12.

Proposition 12, say critics, repeals Proposition 2 and only requires that hens, caged or otherwise, get one square foot of floor space by 2020. The new cage-free date with destiny is now set for 2022. Other notable opponents of Proposition 12 include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Calves raised for veal would be required to have 43 square feet of floor space, and breeding pigs would have 24 square feet of floor space by 2022, under Proposition 12.

Still, Proposition 12 is supported by Matt Johnson at DxE, even if the group hasn't taken a position. He highlights that it's an improvement over Proposition 2 in that it would increase enforcement activities that are now not being pursued by local agencies. "Sonoma authorities are supposed to be serving the public good," he says, "but they are very close to the farmers. Prop. 12 gives us hope insofar as the California Department of Food and Agriculture is now the enforcement mechanism," not local authorities.

The same group of protesters has targeted Liberty Duck, Petaluma Farms and McCoy Poultry in recent months, says SCSO spokesman Sgt. Spencer Crum. "It seems to be a continuing problem with this group," he says.

Capt. Naugle says that the animal-rights group that has protested the Petaluma business is indeed characterized by its persistence—but that the late September mass arrest followed an earlier protest where nobody had been arrested. There were several meetings between the SCSO, and other county officials, and the group, between the first and second protests this year, Naugle says. Thanks to those meetings, a recent protest at Poultry Farms was uneventful to the extent that nobody was accused of trespassing or stealing chickens. "They stayed with the agreement," he says.

The peaceful-protest agreement did not hold. The sheriff's office got no heads-up from DxE in advance of the September protest at McCoy, Naugle says. As a result, "[t]hey broke they law and were arrested."

DxE has a different take and believes that it is legally obliged, under California's animal-welfare statute (section 597e of the penal code), to step in and save animals that they believe are being treated cruelly. Direct Action Everywhere member and attorney Jon Frohnmayer says that the substance of the meeting he attended with Sonoma County—which included the County Counsel's office along with SCSO and the Department of Health—"was our presentation of our analysis [of 597e], that any sort of of animal cruelty, even to pigs, chickens and cows, is criminal under California law."

The law, Frohnmayer charges, allows anyone to give food and water to any animal that's been denied food or water for up to 12 hours. As such, DxE believes that it is legally empowered, if not obligated, to take matters into its own hands when, for example, whistleblowers come forward with damning videos of allegedly suffering animals.

No final charges have issued from the Sonoma County District Attorney stemming from the heated September confrontation at McCoy. "My understanding is that we are still reviewing the cases," says Donna Edwards, media coordinator for Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch. She suggested the Bohemian check in again in a week.

Activists arrived at McCoy wearing Tyvek suits, notes Naugle—indicating an intent to trespass onto the bio-secure property. He says eventual charges "may include trespassing, conspiracy to commit burglary [and] . . . conspiracy to steal the chickens."

Naugle says the SCSO's input at the Oct. 28 Farm Bureau event will be to educate attendees on the balance between activists' right to protest peacefully and lawfully, and a business' right to remain free of trespassers—let alone chicken thieves.

Direct Action Everywhere has no plans to disrupt the event, but the organization is none too happy about the lineup and what it sees as a consistent failure to appreciate the state's animal-cruelty law as it intersects with the general public's right to free allegedly abused animals from wherever they may be living.

"They are literally having law enforcement going to the Beyond the Fence Line, but under the law, what we're doing is justified," says Johnson. "They are plainly taking sides."

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