After over four years of our court case dragging on, my co-defendants and I are scheduled to go on trial Sept. 8 in Sonoma County, California. We are facing dozens of criminal charges, including eight felonies, for nonviolent animal rescues.
Growing up, I prided myself on following the rules. I was a straight-A student and faithful Catholic. My teachers trusted me so much they let me teach the class. Today, I’ve been arrested multiple times as part of a group that’s being surveilled by the FBI. It might surprise you to know I still love following rules and doing what is right, but my understanding of what’s right has changed.
When I moved to the Bay Area to attend the University of California, Berkeley, my grandma warned me not to get too radicalized. I didn’t think she had anything to worry about, but I was wrong.
In college, I started meeting people from different walks of life and learned how little I actually knew. My vegan roommate showed me videos from dairy farms where newborn cows were taken away from their mothers. I had never realized that cows, like humans, have to give birth in order to produce milk. How obvious, in hindsight. It made me feel ashamed and intensely curious about what else I’d never been told. Fortunately, it was easy to seek out more information.
I joined the animal rights club on campus and started attending movie screenings, tabling events and protests. Some of the club members told me about an off-campus group called Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE. They took even more dramatic action for animals, like going inside factory farms to document the conditions and take suffering animals out. Intrigued, my roommate and I took a bus to Oakland to a DxE meetup.
We were met by a bunch of ordinary people who were working together to do extraordinary things for animals, and they invited us to be part of it. I became an organizer, and then an investigator, with DxE — something I never imagined for myself. Sometimes I would drive hours away to investigate a farm under the cover of night and then try to stay awake in my classes the next day. As much as I learned at UC Berkeley, I was learning and experiencing more as a grassroots activist.
I saw many animals suffering up close, including mother pigs inside gestation crates in a Smithfield factory farm. One looked at me with such sadness in her eyes that I was desperate to comfort her. I wanted to pet her the way I pet the dog who is part of my family. Reaching through cold metal bars to pet her as she lay on the cruel, unforgiving floor of her cage, how much comfort could I give her? She was a prisoner whose only crime was being born a pig. Her eyes pleaded to be rescued. I’m haunted by those eyes to this day. There is nothing right about a food system that turns mothers like her into machines, and a legal system that protects those hurting animals and punishes those trying to save them.
In 2018, I learned of criminal animal cruelty happening just an hour away from my apartment in Berkeley. DxE received whistleblower footage from Sunrise Farms, a massive egg-laying operation in Petaluma that — according to court testimony by co-owner Mike Weber — supplies to Whole Foods, Costco, Safeway, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Trader Joe’s and more. The footage showed dead and rotting corpses throughout the facility, birds with sores on their reproductive organs, bloody eggs and a bird who was stuck in the wire of her cage.
California has some of the strongest animal cruelty laws on the books, including criminalizing any “unnecessary cruelty” inflicted on animals. Moreover, unlike some states, California doesn’t have an animal husbandry exemption to its animal cruelty laws, so the laws apply to animals at farms, slaughterhouses and hatcheries.
However, when DxE sent this footage to various county and state authorities in March and April of 2018, none took action. So hundreds of us gathered at the site of the abuse to help the animals ourselves. The day of the demonstration, dozens of sick chickens were found, removed and transported to receive veterinary care. I was one of 40 people arrested and taken to jail.
But if they thought that would stop open rescues, they were wrong. In 2019, activists entered Reichardt Duck Farm in Petaluma where more undercover footage had shown severely injured birds, and birds stuck on their backs unable to right themselves. Rescuers took 32 ducklings to receive critical veterinary care. Both of these actions took place after months spent reporting the cruelty to county and state officials.
And reports have continued, including new evidence of major public health threats at Perdue’s Petaluma Poultry. On June 13, peaceful activists rescued sick chickens from inside the Petaluma Poultry slaughterhouse and called on the authorities to act.
I am grateful that this felony prosecution hasn’t deterred others from taking direct action. Having these charges looming over me for the past four years has been tiring. I’ve made dozens of trips to the Sonoma courthouse for mostly ministerial appearances. My mom asks me for updates about the case every time we talk, and there is nothing I can say to reassure her. Most frustrating of all is knowing that the government is wasting resources prosecuting me and my friends, instead of stopping systemic animal cruelty and fixing the gaping lack of enforcement of animal cruelty laws. The case feels like one long stalling tactic, but finally, trial has been scheduled.
I am eager for my (and the animals’) day in court to defend the right to rescue anyone who is being abused, regardless of their species. Enshrining this right could open the door to a new view of animals under the law — as legal persons, rather than “property.”
In previous open rescue cases, judges have told us they don’t want their court being turned into a “three-ring circus” or a “referendum on the swine industry.” They have restricted media and public access to the courtroom, but these trials capture attention despite their efforts.
My priority isn’t staying out of jail; it is bringing attention to rampant criminal animal cruelty so that the victims get help.
Right now, there are sick and injured animals who are collapsed on the shed floors of factory farms in Sonoma County, slowly dying. They could get medical care that would save their lives, but the factory owners won’t pay for it, the authorities won’t intervene, and the animal caregivers who want to help them are threatened with years in prison. This system is powerful. But cracks are starting to form.
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In the past year, DxE activists have been acquitted in two separate trials for rescuing animals. Activists and lawyers are hailing these legal victories as key steps to establish the “right to rescue” animals in distress, and to change the legal status of animals more broadly. We’re hopeful this trial will make it three wins in a row. Anyone who wants to support can follow the trial and DxE’s other rescue cases at RightToRescue.com.
The City Council of Sebastopol, a city in Sonoma County, recently passed a historic resolution to support the right to rescue and condemn the prosecution of me and my co-defendants. Councilmember Stephen Zollman, a former San Francisco public defender, introduced the resolution. It urges the Sonoma County District Attorney “to instead investigate and prosecute potential violations of the law in commercial animal operations in Sonoma County.” The cities of Berkeley and San Francisco previously passed similar resolutions condemning our prosecution.
I feel fortunate to have the support of these cities, of my community and of my parents, who will be there in the courtroom to support me at trial. Standing trial is scary. The prospect of being put in a cage is not something I ever thought I’d have to face when I was a young girl in Catholic school. But I didn’t know then how unjust our legal system is and how our food system too relies on the imprisonment of those who are different. When I feel afraid, I just think back to that mother pig in the Smithfield factory farm. And I know I have to be strong. I know what is right, and what is wrong. She made it very clear for me.
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