Animal activists seek compassion in 6th District Court
By Robert Stevens
MANTI—The prosecution of six animal activists for alleged crimes at a Norbest-contracted turkey farm seems like a clash of two cultures.
Six members of the Berkley, California-based animal rights activism group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) appeared in 6th District Court for the first time on Wednesday, May 13, to answer felony charges for illegally entering a Norbest-contracted turkey farm and removing a sick turkey.
The six co-defendants were addressed as a group in court and had a legal counsel team representing them. Judge Marvin Bagley scheduled their next appearance—a waiver hearing—for Wednesday, Aug. 9.
“It’s scary and shocking,” DxE co-founder and defendant Wayne Hsiung said in an interview with the Messenger immediately before their initial appearance. “We rescued a bird that’s been tortured, a fact veterinarians agreed with when they saw it.”
The group grabbed the turkey, who they named Abby, during a covert operation onto a Norbest-contracted turkey farm. They also took pictures and video of the birds’ living conditions and released the images on their website, decrying them as inhumane and not in-line with Norbest’s advertising claims.
“We are counting on the people of Utah to respond to compassion,” Hsiung said. “We believe in the people of Utah and we believe when they realize what is taking place, they will take action.”
Whether or not that is the case, the DxE activists definitely upset some people in Sanpete County—a place where turkey growing is a tradition—with their actions.
Between social media feedback on the Messenger Facebook page and letters submitted to the editor, multiple readers expressed their distaste at the group’s attack on the local turkey growing industry—even accusing DxE themselves of putting turkeys in danger from disease contamination by entering the farm. DxE refuted this statement, saying they take stronger preventative bio-contamination measures than the farmers do themselves.
County prosecutors charged Wayne Hsiung, 36, of Berkeley, CA; Paul Picklesimer, 40, of Berkeley, CA; Samer Masterson, 24, of San Francisco, CA; Andrew Sharo, 24, of Berkeley, CA; Diane Gandee Sorbi, 63, of Redwood City, CA; and Jonathan Frohnmayer, 33, of Santa Clara, CA, with two felony charges—burglary and theft of livestock.
At the time of a DxE media release about the turkey farm’s conditions, then Norbest CEO Matt Cook agreed publicly that the conditions they exposed on the Norbest-contracted turkey operation were “deeply disturbing,” but Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels said the charges are based on the letter of the law, and it’s his job to make sure the law is upheld.
The group is gathering signatures on their website for a petition to dismiss the charges. The petition states: “We demand that Mr. Daniels represent the interests of ordinary, compassionate people, not violent corporations. That whistleblowers and animal rescuers be respected and protected, not repressed and prosecuted.”
At the time of publication, the website reported the group had more than 5,300 signatures on their online petition, and the goal was 10,000.
They have also published an online petition to dismiss charges in Beaver County, where they removed two sick piglets from a Milford Hog farm, contracted by pork giant Smithfield. They have gathered more than 29,000 signatures for this incident.
Hsiung, who is a former law professor, says, before the activism-related charges, he had no criminal record, and it’s disturbing to be facing felonies for doing something he feels his moral compass tells him is correct.
At the moment, Hsiung’s moral compass is steering him into dangerous waters. In fact, Hsiung and other DxE members have a pile of charges stacking up in connection with DxE’s activities, which all involve what Hsiung says are exposing cruel conditions of animals being factory farmed and left in “disgusting and cruel conditions.”
The DxE co-founder was arrested on Thursday, June 7 in North Carolina upon stepping off a plane at the Asheville Regional Airport in North Carolina. The charges—breaking and entering and larceny—were filed by the Transylvania County prosecutor for what Hsiung says was the rescue of a baby goat, sick with pneumonia, from a North Carolina farm.
Hsiung was on his way to the Asheville Veganfest when the arrest happened, and he was able to obtain a release from custody.
Hsiung and other DxE activists are also facing charges for their “investigation and rescue” efforts in Beaver County, as well as in Petaluma, Calif., where 39 people were arrested for forcing their way onto a Sunrise Farms industrial egg production facility after being confronted by police.
Despite the legal pressures mounting, the group is still going strong with their activism. After their 6th District Court appearance, followed by a book and release
procedure at the Sanpete County Jail, Hsiung and several of his co-defendants traveled to the public road bordering the very turkey farm they are being charged for burglarizing and used a mobile phone to live-stream a video broadcast to the internet. As of Tuesday, it had received more than 17,000 views.
During the broadcast, Hsiung talked about changes he could notice on the turkey farm and some of procedures he considered tortuous in poultry production.
He said he could see some of the conditions may have improved for the turkeys at the farm, but as long as they were factory farming turkeys, the birds would still have their beaks and talons burned off, which he thinks is cruel and leads to a lot of suffering for the birds in the first few weeks of their life.
He also talked what it had been like at court and the jail. “We were treated very fairly and respectfully by the prosecutor and local law enforcement during the entire procedure,” Hsiung said.
During the broadcast he also described several interactions he had with Sanpete locals that made him believe they were good people who would sympathize with the DxE cause.
Hsiun told the Messenger that the group’s legal strategy was going to depend strongly on an argument and message of compassion and love, and although there may be no legal precedent set for it in Utah that he is aware of, he thinks by nature Utahns are a compassionate people, and he hopes the message will resonate.
But the discussion to happen in court will be about more than defending themselves. The activism group has gone on record as saying that, despite the possible consequences, they are glad to have the legal battles as a platform to spread awareness about their cause. In fact, the group has said they are intentionally trying to get arrested in some cases, so the visibility will be the catalyst for a discussion about animal rights.
Daniels told the Messenger the group may have a soapbox to shout from, but he thinks the Berkeley, Calif. activists are over-estimating the sympathy they will receive from local jurors if the case goes to jury trial.
On the day of their initial appearance, the activists were greeted by signs and banners which had recently been erected and hung all over Manti City advertising the Norbest “Sanpete Turkey” dinners served during the Mormon Miracle Pageant.
Hsiung says he recognizes that turkey production is a major economic contributor to Sanpete County, and that many people depend on it for jobs to feed their families. He says he believes the county could still have all the jobs that the turkey industry provides—without killing turkeys—but it would require turkey growing operations to make a huge change.
According to Hsiung, the same companies that he says are torturing animals and growing them in cruel conditions should convert to vegetable protein farming, allowing the local population to retain employment, but at the admitted cost of the companies.
“It’s the corporations that need to invest in the counties,” Hsiung says.