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Petaluma egg farm protest was well planned, coordinated

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Last week’s protest at a northwest Petaluma egg farm may have been a surprise to many residents, but for Direct Action Everywhere, it was merely the final day of its Animal Liberation Conference in Berkeley, a global summit for animal rights activists.

Matt Johnson, DXE spokesperson and investigator, said Sunrise Farms was targeted primarily because of its proximity to the conference.

It was also sought out because of its connection to corporations like Amazon and Whole Foods that engage in “humane washing,” Johnson said, an animal rights term used to described companies that “pacify otherwise compassionate consumers.” They claim to adhere to high standards but in reality engage in the opposite, activists say.

In the May 29 demonstration, an estimated 500 protesters were transported to Petaluma on at least seven large buses. They stood on both sides of Liberty Road, just north of Rainsville Road, holding flowers and singing songs in a peaceful demonstration.

Several protesters also walked onto the property multiple times, taking 37 chickens that were sick and dying, Johnson said. Initial reports said about 10 chickens were taken.

After unsuccessful negotiations between the farm’s owners and DXE leadership to gain access for larger rescues, facilitated by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, about 40 activists crossed onto the property a final time and were arrested for trespassing.

Johnson said the chickens were subjected to crowded conditions and horrific air quality filled with particulate matter. Some were being cannibalized, starving to death and had various diseases common with egg-laying hens, he said.

The Argus-Courier was unable to verify for those claims.

Arnie Riebli, a partner of Sunrise Farms, told The Press Democrat the “claims they’re making are false. If not false, they are grossly exaggerated.”

Riebli declined to be interviewed for this story.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau officials pointed to Proposition 2, or the Standards for Confining Farm Animals initiative, which went into affect in 2015 and gave greater protections to livestock by increasing cage sizes, making California an industry leader in its treatment of farm animals.

“I don’t feel that they presented a strong argument that these chickens were being purposely hurt because of poor management or any other action related to the farmer,” said Tawny Tesconi, Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s executive director. “Any animals in flocks or herds, often you’ll see injuries from other chickens and other cows … I don’t feel like their picture represented the farm’s mismanagement.”

On May 30, the day after the Petaluma protest, the State Assembly approved a bill that would make every egg produced or sold in the state cage-free by 2024. The next step for the bill is approval in the State Senate.

“Consumers and retailers are already moving toward cage-free eggs, and this timeline provides time for farmers across the country,” Assembly Member Marc Levine said in a press release.

As an agricultural hub, Petaluma has had its share of run-ins with animal activists in the past. In 2014, North Bay Animal Advocates held a demonstration at a local slaughterhouse. DXE targeted Whole Foods another time by breaking into Petaluma Farms in 2015, and later posted a graphic video that showed the conditions inside.

When asked about claims that the organization breaks the law to push its agenda, Johnson pointed to the California penal code, specifically 597e, which says it’s legal to enter a confined area of a domestic animal to provide food and water if they’ve been impounded for more than 12 hours without any.

However, DXE’s interpretation of that law still resulted in charges of trespassing last week.

“We take nonviolent direct action to create a world where every animal is free,” Johnson said. “The principle or defining act that we take is to go directly into places where animals are being brutalized and documenting conditions and rescuing sick and injured individuals in immediate need of care. Our ultimate goal is to create a world where every animal has the right to live safe, happy and free. We want to extend that to all sentient life.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)