On a rainy night in February, 2018, animal rights activist Wayne Hsiung sneaked into a small scale North Carolina farm and, depending on your perspective, either stole or rescued a baby goat. The maneuver was highly risky – on a live stream, Hsiung tells his audience what awaits: an electric fence, barking dogs and armed security guards, according to the farm’s website.
Undeterred, Hsiung and his co-conspirators filled their pockets with dog treats and broke into the Sospiro farm, owned by farmer Curtis Burnside.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this today is because we want to show the world – whether it’s factory farmed or it’s from a small-scale farm – [that] these animals don’t deserve to die,” says Hsiung to the camera, his face bathed in red light. “And we believe killing an animal intentionally is criminal animal cruelty.”
Hsiung is now hoping jurors in North Carolina will agree with his interpretation of the law. In a landmark case that could predict the future of the right to rescue distressed animals, he faces up to six and a half years in prison for felony charges of larceny and breaking and entering, based on what the video shows him doing next.
In darkness, Hsiung and others from the activist organization he co-founded, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), make their way past the farm’s electric fences towards a barn. After placating the guard dogs with vegan peanut-butter treats, Hsiung finds what he’s after: a baby goat – sick, he believes – in a small pen with its mother. They escape with the goat unharmed, but Hsiung accidentally drops a piece of crucial evidence: his driver’s license.
Burnside, who did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment, alerted authorities after finding the license in the morning.
Hsiung was allegedly unaware of this – he went on to live his life, naming the baby goat Rain in the meantime. Then, three months later, when he returned to North Carolina for a vegan festival, he was arrested at Asheville airport. As the person who physically carried the goat on the live-stream, and who left his ID behind, Hsiung, alone among his co-conspirators, stands accused of the crime.
Hsiung, now 40, has had many run-ins with the law over his 15-odd years of animal rights activism. In 2007, after what he says was a “peaceful protest” against the use of fur in fashion outside a Burberry store in Chicago, criminal charges were levied against him. (He takes credit on behalf of DxE for later spearheading California’s landmark fur ban in 2019 – DxE was pivotal in its passing in Berkeley and San Francisco.) Yet the charges against him, he says, have always been dropped – until now.
“What we’ve seen over the last four years is a dramatic escalation in the number and severity of charges being filed against animal rights activists,” says Hsiung over the phone from North Carolina, days before his expected court verdict. He perceives this as the agricultural lobby’s desperate attempt to keep its practices opaque, in light of the public’s increasing concern for animal welfare and awareness of the environmental impacts of livestock farming.
“A bunch of ragtag grassroots activists doing open rescues, mobilizing people, investigating abusive facilities and ultimately achieving social change was a shock to the industry,” he says. “They’ve clamped down really hard.”
Farmers give many reasons to push back against activists. People are breaking and entering on property where farmersoften live with their families, and, they say, are stealing valuable livestock and threatening to undermine livelihoods when they bring allegations of animal mistreatment. In Burnside’s case, Hsiung was a repeat offender, previously breaking in and taking a different goat, which was sick with the parasitic disease coccidia. On his blog, Burnside calls Hsiung an “animal rights terrorist” and accuses him of stealing baby animals as a marketing tactic for DxE.
Did Hsiung really have to trespass on private property and abscond with a kid in order to make a statement about animal rights?
“There’s a phenomenon in psychology called the identifiable victim effect,” Hsiung explains, of his choice to perform and livestream open rescues. “When you reduce some sort of global atrocity or suffering through the lens of a single individual, it suddenly becomes so much more vivid and powerful,” he says. “We’re trying to tell a story of individual animals in a way that really moves people.”
For him, it’s also about smashing what he believes is a myth: of benevolent small-scale farms, which may talk of free-range and happy animals, but which in fact can harbor cramped living conditions, not provide veterinary care, and slaughter animals.
“It’s important people understand that our goal is never to target the individuals involved,” says Hsiung. “In many ways, [farmers] are victims of the system as well” – a deeply entrenched agricultural system into which some farmers are born or turn to in order to support their families, despite their own moral ambivalence about killing animals for profit.
Hsiung says some farmers sympathize with his cause, even after he’s taken their animals. In 2017, Hsiung took a sick turkey from Utah farmer Rick Pitman’s farm and documented poor conditions within, filming injured and diseased turkeys, in a similar act of subterfuge. Later on, when DxE was demonstrating in front of one of Pitman’s slaughterhouses, Pitman invited the protesters inside and struck up a dialogue.The next year, Pitman and Hsiung pardoned 100 turkeys from the farm on Thanksgiving.
Should Hsiung be acquitted of charges in his current trial, it could set a legal precedent for the “right to rescue” agricultural livestock. Thirty-one states have right to rescue laws primarily aimed at protecting people from being sued if they break into hot cars to save distressed dogs. Hsiung and other activists want to see more protections provided for those who rescue any animal in distress – not just pets.
But for now he waits for the outcome of the trial, which started on 27 November. Being faced with jail for the first time , Hsiung has begun to muse on howit would feel to be imprisoned.
“There’s days when I feel good about … the possibility of incarceration, because I know this is often what [activists] have to do to get the attention and the political momentum we need,” he says.
But his political mission isn’t the only thing he cares about in life. “Other days I think of my personal life. I’m 40 years old, would like to have kids someday, don’t even have time to date anybody, and would like to spend more time with my dad in his later years,” as well as with his elderly pet cat, he says sadly. “And I’ll have less time if I’m in prison.”
For Rain, at least, the future is not so fraught. After receiving care for the pneumonia he had when rescued, he’s living in a sanctuary. There, at least, says Hsiung, “he’s safe and happy”.