Wayne Hsiung’s trial and conviction show the extraordinary difficulty of trying to discuss what happens to animals on factory farms in a legal system that only sees them as property. the larger animal rights community, are only beginning to grapple with what Hsiung’s incarceration will mean for the movement. This is a moment that every movement faces, and you sort of say, ‘Okay, do we retreat for a year or two years, do we slow down? Or do we double down?’
MARINA BOLOTNIKOVA: Wayne Hsiung, an attorney and leading figure in the animal rights movement, was convicted of two counts of misdemeanor trespass and one count of felony conspiracy to trespass last week, after six days of deliberation by a jury in Santa Rosa, California, about an hour north of San Francisco. The case emerged from Hsiung’s role in helping lead two mass protest actions in 2018 and 2019, in which activists removed 70 chickens and ducks from two Sonoma County factory farms: Sunrise Farms, a major egg supplier, and Reichardt Duck Farm. Activists took the animals to receive veterinary care and ultimately to live at animal sanctuaries.
The conviction represents a major turning point for the group Hsiung co-founded in 2013, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), which has become an increasingly important part of the animal rights movement. DxE is known for its bold, uncompromising tactics, including a practice it calls “open rescue,” in which activists enter factory farms, slaughterhouses, and other places where animals are exploited for profit, film conditions there, and rescue animals who are especially sick or suffering. Open rescue represents both a utopian ideal — directly liberating animals from suffering and slaughter — and a pragmatic legal strategy. With these tactics, the activists openly invite prosecution, hoping to flip the script of a criminal trial by presenting evidence of animal cruelty to the jury and arguing that their actions were not only defensible, but necessary. Success, they hope, would set a legal precedent in favor of intervening to help animals suffering in the factory farm system.
Before Hsiung’s conviction last Thursday, DxE had had a surprising run of success with these trials. Hsiung and DxE member Paul Darwin Picklesimer were acquitted in a historic trial in October 2022 for rescuing two sick, suffering piglets from a massive Smithfield Foods factory farm in Utah. Then, in March of this year, activists Alicia Santurio and Alexandra Paul were acquitted in California for removing two chickens from a truck outside a slaughterhouse owned by Foster Farms, a major chicken producer. In both trials, defendants argued that they had taken animals who were in such ill health that they had no commercial value to their owners. In interviews after the Smithfield trial, jurors have said they were horrified by arguments made by prosecutors, comparing animals to inanimate property.
Until now, no DxE activist had been sentenced to jail time for an open rescue. That’s about to change. Hsiung is now being held in jail at least until his sentencing hearing on November 30 (like many other people detained in Sonoma County, he’s only allowed to leave his cell for 30 minutes per day, DxE communications director Cassie King told me). Attorneys in the case say he could face up to three and a half years in prison…
Hsiung’s trial and conviction show the extraordinary difficulty of trying to discuss what happens to animals on factory farms in a legal system that only sees them as property. At both factory farms in this case, DxE had documented gruesome conditions prior to their open rescue actions and had submitted animal cruelty complaints to authorities (though no action was taken by legal officials, King said). Yet it was the activists, not the farm owners, who were criminally charged and had to explain themselves to a jury. Laura Passaglia, the Sonoma County Superior Court judge who presided over the trial, barred Hsiung from showing most evidence of animal cruelty, depriving him of the ability to show his motives for entering the farms.
“The law is creating a double standard by which the corporations are not held accountable and a person who’s charged with trespass is,” Justin Marceau, a law professor at the University of Denver who runs a clinic representing animal activists and plans to work an appeal of Hsiung’s trial, told me. “A big feature of these trials has been the opportunity to expose the lawlessness of the industry and juxtapose that with the trivial infractions by people who are rescuing animals … When you aren’t able to make that contrast for the jury, it’s a lot harder to win.”
DxE’s members and supporters, and the larger animal rights community, are only beginning to grapple with what Hsiung’s incarceration will mean for the movement. For a while, DxE’s groundbreaking recent victories had made the movement feel “invincible,” Dean Wyrzykowski, co-founder with Hsiung of open rescue group the Simple Heart, told me. Although Hsiung had long known that going to prison was a possibility — even an inevitability, given the number of cases he’s been involved in — many of his supporters were shocked and dismayed after his conviction came in.
The verdict hearkens back to the 2006 federal convictions of six activists who had campaigned against the animal testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences — a hugely demoralizing moment for the animal rights movement that for a time pushed its tactics in a more moderate direction. “That conviction really shut off all kinds of civil disobedience and direct action in the US,” Marceau said — until DxE came around…
The power of DxE’s philosophy is its refusal to compromise with a profoundly immoral system; now it has met a legal system that seems equally uncompromising, and as a result its most influential exponent, Hsiung, is behind bars.
“It’s a striking reminder that the consequences are real. They’re not hypothetical,” Marceau said. “This is a moment that every movement faces, and you sort of say, ‘Okay, do we retreat for a year or two years, do we slow down? Or do we double down?’’
One lesson from this conviction is that mass actions like the one DxE staged at Sunrise, with large numbers of activists pouring into a farm over the objections of employees, may not be very appealing to a jury. The group’s more understated, less combative actions — like taking two piglets from a terrible factory farm at night, without workers around — may garner more sympathy…
DxE has already announced its next move: Right after Hsiung’s conviction came in, the group released new undercover footage, including two new open rescues, taken at Sunrise Farms and Reichardt Duck Farm while the trial was ongoing. “You do not scare us and we will not stop,” DxE lead organizer Almira Tanner posted on X. This week, the group publicly released its in-depth manual on how to conduct undercover investigations, signaling a desire to scale up this type of work.
“I think this [conviction] is lighting a fire in these activists that the US animal movement hasn’t previously experienced,” Marceau said. “I think people are angry and I think people see this as an injustice. And sometimes that’s the most powerful thing, is having this kind of injustice.”
That may be true — it’s hard to think of a social movement that’s succeeded without people who were unjustly persecuted but persisted in spite of it. But DxE will need to decide, as a group and as individuals, how much sacrifice it’s willing to bear. SOURCE…