Berkeley activist Wayne Hsiung charged with stealing North Carolina goat

photo of protestors
Jenna Wong/File
Animal rights activists have begun partaking in "open rescue," in which they take animals they perceive to be in distress from slaughterhouses and labs.

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Longtime Berkeley activist Wayne Hsiung was convicted of larceny and breaking and entering Monday for taking a sick goat from a North Carolina meat farm in February 2018.

Hsiung, a lawyer and co-founder of the animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, represented himself at the trial, where he was sentenced to two years probation. The trial is the first in the United States to examine the concept of “open rescue” — a form of direct action in which activists remove animals they believe to be distressed or in pain from factory farms, slaughterhouses and laboratories to provide them with medical care without concealing their identities, according to a press release by DxE.

“Open rescue is a powerful expression of animal rights and animal rescue,” said DxE spokesperson Matt Johnson. “You’re not hiding what you’re doing, you’re very proud of what you’re doing and feel like it’s the right thing to do. And if it comes down to it, you’re prepared to meet the consequences of that if it’s deemed to be criminal.”

As part of the open rescue operation, DxE broadcast the theft live on Facebook. This is not the first such operation, and DxE is facing trials across the country.

But the picture painted of the farm by its owners is a far cry from the factory farms Hsiung and DxE have targeted in their open rescues since 2018, according to an article by the Transylvania Times, the newspaper from the county where Hsiung was tried.

The 15-acre homestead farm typically raises between eight and 12 goats at a time. The goat Hsiung filmed himself taking was less than a week old, and at the time was housed inside a stall with a heater alongside the goat’s brother and mother, the article states.

Hsiung’s argument in court hinged around two concepts. The first, animal personhood, argues that animals should not be seen as property by the law and that their interests must be seen alongside those of the owner. As such, the charge of larceny, which involves stealing property, should not hold.

“We live in a system where the distinction between a chair and a dog is nonexistent under the law. Any child understands there is a huge difference between a chair and a dog,” Hsiung said. “You kick the chair, the chair does not cry. You kick the puppy, the puppy does cry.”

The second argument, which Hsiung considered more likely to prevail in court, is that of the necessity defense. Under this defense, which some states, including California, have adopted into law, an individual can break a window to, for example, rescue a dog sitting in a hot car.

North Carolina, however, does not have this provision. Hsiung, who is appealing the conviction, hopes to take this issue to the state appeals court.

Because Hsiung represented himself, he was able to make these nontraditional legal arguments that push the envelope, he said.

“There’s value in having defendants in activist cases represent themselves because the jury, the courtroom, the judge, even the prosecutors, when they hear directly from the defendants, it has a different effect,” Hsiung said. “It makes the arguments and the cause more real because the person who did the actions speaks directly about why they did that.”

The trial was lost, but Hsiung emphasizes that it set “political precedents.”

In the first place, the trial was able to get a conversation going, Hsiung said. He noted that the trial drew extensive media coverage that was largely critical of the prosecution. Beyond that, Hsiung, who was faced with a range of charges that carried with them hefty prison times, was only sentenced to two years probation. Hsiung credits this as a win for the animal rights movement.

“We think this is a case about compassion and the common decency idea that animals who are in distress should receive care and that ordinary citizens should have the power to help those animals when our system fails them,” Johnson said.

David Villani is a city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @DavidVillani7.