As Berkeley residents face felony trial, Berkeley City Council affirms its ‘right to rescue’ animals from abuse

Illustration of dogs with signs
Olivia Staser/Staff

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What happens in Berkeley sparks change throughout the world, and the latest wave of change is advancing an often overlooked cause: animal rights. In 2017, Berkeley banned the sale of fur, and one year later, San Francisco followed in our footsteps and became the first major U.S. city to ban new fur sales. The momentum kept growing, and earlier this year, the entire state of California followed suit, becoming the first state in the nation to take this pivotal step for animals.

But as historic as the fur ban is, a simple resolution passed by Berkeley City Council on Dec. 10 could dramatically redefine society’s relationship with our nonhuman kin even more — and help me stay out of prison.

I am one of six Berkeley residents facing a total of 47 felony charges for documenting criminal animal cruelty at factory farms in Sonoma County and for trying to help dying animals. We are part of a grassroots animal rights network called Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, based in Berkeley and active in more than 30 countries around the world. Informed by the lessons of history, we take nonviolent, direct action to challenge animal abuse at the frontlines. We provide authorities with evidence of criminal abuse, such as sick, injured or starving animals. And if (or when) our elected officials fail to enforce the law, we do the right thing, both morally and legally, and help these individuals ourselves. Hundreds of animals worldwide are now living out their natural lives in sanctuaries because ordinary members of the public took action to rescue them. Many of these animals are in Berkeley, including Jonah and Mabel, the two bunnies I have taken into my home. We rescued them from a California fur farm and an Oakland slaughterhouse, and today, they are safe and loved.

Increasingly, these investigations and rescues have led to serious legal consequences, despite the fact that California law explicitly empowers members of the public to enter private property to help animals and even to bill the property owner for the supplies they provide. Our actions have also garnered immense public support, including from renowned journalists, state legislators and the city of Berkeley.

On Dec. 10, Berkeley City Council passed a resolution to support the nonviolent activists who face charges for these peaceful actions at Sonoma County farms. The resolution urges Sonoma County’s District Attorney Jill Ravitch to drop the charges against us and divert her office’s resources into investigating the criminal animal cruelty that we have exposed.

I am thrilled to have my city stand by me and say what I and other DxE activists are doing is right and, more importantly, that the animals — who have undoubtedly done nothing wrong — deserve to be safe and protected.

When we go to trial later this year, we will have a unique opportunity to win a first-of-its-kind victory for whistleblower protection and the right to rescue animals who are being abused. It could set a precedent for ordinary people to hold powerful corporations accountable and for animal rescues to multiply around the globe. So while I could be locked up next year and sentenced to nine years in prison — it churns my stomach to think of saying goodbye to my family, my friends and my bunnies for so long — I am still feeling optimistic about our case. I was just a freshman at UC Berkeley when I joined the campus animal rights club, Berkeley Organization for Animal Advocacy, and then started learning about open rescue with DxE. I couldn’t have predicted the situation I’m in now, but I wouldn’t change my path for anything.

Throughout the city, Berkeley residents have been showing their support by posting signs in their windows that read, “We support the Right to Rescue” and signing our open letter on DxE’s website. Dozens of local businesses have posted the sign as well. To City Council and the people of Berkeley, I want to say thank you.

Berkeley is leading the way for animal rights, as it has done for disability rights, gay rights and so many other struggles for justice. This victory may seem simple enough, but these symbolic gestures of support, both through Berkeley’s government and the community, may just be the spark to ignite a fire for a bolder national animal rights movement. We have certainly seen this ripple effect starting in Berkeley before. In 2016, Berkeley passed a resolution condemning the dog meat trade in China, and the following year, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced its own resolution urging China to end the dog meat trade. The federal government also took a look closer to home and passed a bill officially outlawing the slaughter of dogs and cats for food in the U.S. Although this was an uncommon practice, it was still legal in 44 states prior to the new federal law.

If this week’s resolution follows the same path to a national level, or the same path as the fur ban to a statewide law, then someday we’ll look back on this moment in history as the start of the animal rescue revolution.

 

Cassie King is a UC Berkeley alumna and an organizer with the Berkeley-based animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere.