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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Rescuing farm animals from cruelty should be legal


Inside a Foster Farms facility in Livingston, Calif., in 2021.

By Farhad Manjoo


For about six weeks in the summer of 2021, an activist working with the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, gained undercover access to one of the largest chicken slaughterhouses in California, a Foster Farms facility in the Central Valley city of Livingston.


Using hidden infrared cameras that can see in the dark, the DxE activist captured video showing a production line moving too quickly — about 140 chickens are killed every minute on each of the four slaughtering lines in Livingston — to offer any kind of humane death for the animals. Live birds are seen thrown, crushed, left for dead and suffocated under piles of dead birds. Some aren’t properly stunned before they’re killed. And while the DxE footage doesn’t show this, inspectors working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture have reported seeing evidence that birds at the Livingston facility had been dunked alive in a boiling water tank for defeathering.


Foster Farms denies any wrongdoing; in a statement, a spokesperson told me that allegations of inhumane treatment “are without merit and a disservice to the thousands of Foster Farms team members that are dedicated to providing millions of families in the Western United States and beyond with a quality nutritious product.”


But the footage presents an ethical challenge to a society that claims to care for animal welfare: What should happen to people who try to save these chickens?


Two DxE activists, Alexandra Paul and Alicia Santurio, will go on trial next month on charges of misdemeanor theft for taking two chickens from a truck outside the Livingston slaughterhouse in September 2021. They argue that what they did was not steal but rescue — that after trying other ways to protect chickens at the Livingston facility, they took the only option left to them, no different from breaking a window to rescue a puppy locked in a hot car.


Over the past few years DxE has conducted a string of such “open rescues,” in which activists record themselves, often in daylight, taking a small number of chickens, pigs, beagles and other animals from facilities where they have documented inhumane treatment. In addition to saving the lives of the animals, the rescues are an attempt to provoke law enforcement into pursuing criminal trials against the rescuers — trials in which the activists want to publicize the unseen brutality that pushed them to act.


Their larger goal is to establish a “right” to rescue animals that face inhumane treatment in agriculture. In any context other than factory farming, treating animals the way we see chickens treated in the Foster Farms slaughterhouse videos would be considered blatant cruelty. Many would also consider it cruel to stand by while someone else handled animals this way. “If there’s someone in my neighborhood watching me boil birds alive, we’d say this is monstrous behavior,” Wayne Hsiung, a co-founder of DxE, told me.


Shouldn’t the same be true of animals we’re going to eat? Don’t we have a moral obligation to do whatever we can to save animals from inhumane factory-farming facilities, or, at the very least, to not punish people who do try to help?


I’m not a vegan, or even a vegetarian, but as I’ve written before, vegans and animal welfare activists deserve society’s immense respect rather than mockery because they are clearly right about the big issues: that industrial-scale animal farming is an incomprehensible cruelty many of us try our best not to think about, lest it ruin our lunch; that the animals we grow to eat are biologically no less complex and deserving of dignity and humane treatment than the animals we keep as pets; and that the production of cheap and plentiful meat has been an environmental and public health catastrophe whose obvious solution — eat less meat! — nevertheless remains culturally and politically verboten.


In these rescues, activists are again putting themselves on the line to establish a worthy principle.


They may succeed, too. Last fall, a Utah jury acquitted Hsiung and another DxE activist, Paul Darwin Picklesimer, of burglary and theft for taking two sick piglets from a farm owned by Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer of pork. Even though the judge in the case barred much evidence of animal cruelty from being shown, jurors accepted the activists’ essential argument that they were rescuing animals, not stealing.


These cases turn the abstract suffering of farm animals into questions about specific animals suffering in specific ways. The pigs rescued from Smithfield were visibly severely ill. According to DxE, one of the chickens taken from Foster Farms died within days of the rescue, and the other required intensive veterinary care to recover. The one who died was given the name Ethan. Jax, the chicken who survived, is at a sanctuary in California. Even meat lovers don’t want to eat sick animals.


DxE submitted its Foster Farms findings to law enforcement and animal welfare authorities. California’s animal cruelty laws make it a felony to subject an animal to “needless suffering,” “unnecessary cruelty” and to cause it to be “cruelly killed.” While there is an exception that allows animals to be killed for food, there’s nothing in the law that exempts farm animals from humane treatment; it is just as illegal in California to mistreat a chicken at a slaughterhouse as a kitten in your own house.


But DxE says it has no knowledge that officials took any action in response. Paul told me she felt that she had no choice but to personally rescue any birds that she could. She says she has turned down a plea deal that would have involved no jail time; if convicted, she could face up to six months in jail.


“I want to go to trial because I want to elevate the stories of these chickens,” Paul told me. She added that “the only reason that people know what’s happening to animals in these places — in factory farms, in labs or behind circus doors — is because of animal rights activists.”


For that reason alone, they should be praised, not punished.

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