Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media
In recent years, especially since the 2020 black liberation uprisings, the government has devoted considerable time and resources to the persecution of anti-racist and anti-fascist activists. The state has disproportionately targeted the far left while leaving the far right alone. All the while, with little media attention, the decades-long demonization and criminalization of animal rights activism has continued unabated – and even escalated worryingly.
On Monday, the trial of lawyer and animal liberation activist Wayne Hsiung begins in rural North Carolina. He faces burglary and theft charges, punishable by more than three years in prison. All for the removal of a sick kid from a goat meat farm.
The action was filmed and broadcast on social media as an example of what the animal rights movement calls “open rescue” – a tactic by which activists publicly rescue animals from factory farms and bring them to shelters for animals. Saving individual, usually sick animals is an end in itself, but the larger goal is to draw attention to the brutalities of factory farming, especially farms that claim to be humane. The suffering of rescued animals, according to activists, belies the notion of harmless meat farms.
The heavy burdens Hsiung and others now face underscore the activists’ point of view: that current legal standards elevate property above life to an extreme degree. The so-called green scare of the 1990s and 2000s, during which the government-invoked notion of “eco-terrorism” led to the imprisonment of several years of non-violent animal rights activists, n ‘ clearly has not ended.
Hsiung and other open rescuers have been the subject of charges in the past, as The Intercept reported; so far, his charges had been dropped by prosecutors. The North Carolina trial will be Hsiung’s first. This is part of a series of other recent criminal cases against rescuers opened across the country in court.
“The seriousness of these accusations, and the amount of state resources devoted to these cases, shows how clearly this issue has become a priority, and at a time when the livestock industry faces a judgment. in public opinion, ”said Hsiung, who co-founded the Animal Rights Network Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, which uses open rescue as a central tactic, told me. “More and more people are ready to conclude that animals, including farm animals, have a life worth protecting.”
His hope – and it can only be a hope in the face of a trial in a farming community in a dark red jurisdiction – is that a jury will affirm the value of saving a suffering animal and thus create an opening for legal precedents regarding d other animal rights to be established. “We need a paradigm shift of seeing animals as commodities,” he said. “I believe in the possibility of changing standards in law. “
Hsiung’s optimism is commendable from a man threatened with prison for taking a kid from a farm and filming it, opposing the powerful agricultural lobby. The prosecutor who laid the charges against Hsiung in 2018, District Attorney Greg Newman, was without sympathy. “I will treat him like anyone else,” he said of the accused. “The goat is property and its health has nothing to do with North Carolina law.”
Newman has since been permanently removed from his post after numerous sexual assault victims accused him of willful and damaging misconduct for refusing to hear them in court and protecting powerful alleged abusers. The former prosecutor, however, has had more than enough time to lay disproportionate charges against a goat rescuer. Newman’s replacement, Andrew Murray, has maintained his predecessor’s course against the animal rights activist.
At the very least, Hsiung’s case offers an opportunity to present arguments in court that could raise the tensions and inconsistencies surrounding the legal status of animals.
“A lawsuit is where the rubber hits the road,” Hsiung’s lawyer Jon Frohnmayer told me. “If we want a place to really examine what humans do to non-human animals, this is it.”
Frohnmayer believes these cases may highlight “inherent contradictions in our system,” in which laws criminalize actions such as open rescue. The very laws that concern animals, such as laws defining animals as “property” or livestock exemptions from cruelty to animals laws, he argues, should be seen as lacking in democratic legitimacy to exclude the interests and prospects of non-human life.
An array of animal cruelty laws have been on state books for over a century. In several states, however, animals that must be killed for food are exempt from these cruelty protections. North Carolina is not such a state. Lawyers have also argued that a so-called necessity defense, which in certain circumstances would allow a person to enter a stranger’s car with a legal justification to save a choking dog, could apply in open rescue cases; the logic is the same, and the only difference is in the power of the agricultural industry.
Meanwhile, non-human animals in this country do not have the designation of legal person, a category enjoyed by corporations and ships. A number of activist efforts are underway to change this. Indigenous climate leaders are also pushing for legal personality to be granted to environmental features such as rivers.
“A successful defense of necessity would create limited personality rights for animals,” Frohnmayer said. He explained that the aim is to establish a “right to rescue” in which “rescue” is “understood as a name”; that is, not only would a person have the right to save an animal from a factory, but also the animal itself, understood as a sentient life, would deserve the right to be saved.
The lines of defense in open rescue cases do not necessarily change paradigm. It is an option, for example, that Hsiung can be declared innocent of theft if it can be proven that the sick goat was of no value to the farmer – an argument that could save Hsiung from prison but reinforce the fact of consider animals as commodities. And there is a considerable risk of setting a precedent: a loss in a jurisdiction that rejects arguments for a defense of necessity could be used to deny the use of such a defense in other human rights cases. animals.
Those who undertake the tactic of open rescue would no doubt prefer that the law come to recognize animals as lives worth saving. The movement opposes the meat industry, period. Through the rescue of injured animals, he also seeks to draw attention to what he sees as the impossibility of animal welfare on even supposedly ethical farms. And it is through the cases of these individual animals that precedents could be established around the legal status of animals.
Whether or not one agrees with animal liberation desires to end farming and animal testing, it remains extreme to suggest that Hsiung deserves a prison sentence for his actions. Even some “victims” of open rescue disagree with such harsh prosecutions. Just days before Hsiung’s appearance in North Carolina, he met a farmer in the Utah countryside to participate in a “pardon” for a sick turkey he had rescued from that farmer’s property. Hsiung had also faced felony charges for this rescue, but was able to achieve a “layoff by compromise” with the state and the farmer, especially because the farmer understood the activist’s actions as “Only save lives”.
An increase in lawsuits against open rescue activists signals a government interest in deterrence – disheartening actions that garner huge numbers of subscribers and support online. State interests remain aligned with those of the animal agriculture industry and pharmaceutical giants engaged in animal testing, for whom a radical shift in public opinion on animal rights is a major threat.
“For two decades, corporate interests and state and federal governments have gone to great lengths to criminalize and prosecute animal rights activism. “
“For two decades, corporate interests and state and federal governments have undertaken significant efforts to criminalize and prosecute animal rights activism,” said Lauren Gazzola, a longtime animal liberation activist. who served 40 months in federal prison in the mid-2000s after being convicted of “corporate animal terrorism” alongside other members of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign. Gazzola and other members of SHAC Seven, as she and her co-defendants were known, were persecuted for what should have been constitutionally protected speech.
As far-right groups increased in number and rank over the past three decades, the FBI in 2005 named animal and environmental advocates as the # 1 national terrorist threat facing the nation. , despite the fact that these movements had killed neither humans nor animals. .
Major lawsuits and convictions like that of SHAC Seven have had a chilling effect on animal rights activism. Yet as public opinion shifts in favor of animal welfare, networks like DxE believe it will be increasingly difficult for industry and government to criminalize animal rights activists without public reaction. This is not to say that the interests of animal agriculture do not continue to have great influence at all levels of government, as evidenced by the case of Hsiung, among others over the past decade.
“Given that these defendants are extremely nonviolent – indeed, they strive to end massive violence against animals – one wonders why their activism is seen as such a threat to these interests,” me said. Gazzola said by e-mail. “Maybe animal rights and ending the environmental devastation associated with animal farming are ideas whose time has come.”