North Carolina Jury Hands Down Felony Convictions for Animal Activist’s “Open Rescue”

by Michelle C. Pardo

Wayne Hsiung, animal activist and co-founder of Berkeley, CA-based animal rights group, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), was found guilty by jury of felony larceny after breaking and entering and felony breaking and entering, for taking a goat from the Sospiro Goat Ranch in Transylvania County, North Carolina, back in 2018.

Hsiung, who had spearheaded DxE’s “open rescues” – illegally entering agriculture properties without permission and taking animals to liberate them – had been charged with criminal conduct in multiple jurisdictions.  In the North Carolina case, Hsiung claimed that he and the other DxE “investigators” entered the ranch to identify animals that were diseased or suffering from neglect.  According to the goat ranch, at the time of the “rescue” the baby goat was living with its mother and healthy and nursing well at the time of its theft.

DxE, which touts its “Until Every Animal is Free” motto on its website, prominently featured their “open rescues” via live stream, including those narrated by Hsiung, in which he described DxE’s motivation to show the world that animals should not be used for food and that killing an animal intentionally is criminal animal cruelty.  The North Carolina criminal case had been described in the media as a “landmark” case that could decide the future of the “right” to rescue agricultural livestock.

Prior to trial, Hsiung had filed a motion to dismiss the criminal charges based on his argument that animals could not be stolen because they are not property.  That motion was denied.  Media reports have noted DxE’s goal: a constitutional amendment granting animals “legal personhood.”

Hsiung also had previewed that his testimony would include telling his own story “from aspiring academic to alleged animal rights ‘terrorist.’”  He also shared in his blog: “to be clear, I am not suggesting that there is no basis for the criminal charges against me” and that “we win even if we lose” because “the attention, pressure and storytelling that will come out of this trial will be a powerful force for the movement, even if I am in jail.”

Hsiung’s pre-trial fundraiser came with a plea to “help me defend the right to rescue in court” and the promise: “all donations matched.”  As Hsiung stated: “It’s up to a North Carolina jury to decide if the rescue was a crime or simply the right thing to do.”

On December 6, 2021, the jury decided that Hsiung’s “rescue” was, indeed, a crime.

Hsiung, an attorney, represented himself in the North Carolina jury trial.  In providing contemporaneous trial updates on his blog, Hsiung said that proceeding pro se as an activist defendant allowed him to “push things in a way that a non pro-se defendant could not” and “when activists represent themselves, and relate directly to a prosecutor, it becomes more difficult for them to see you as disembodied ‘social problems.’”

Hsiung live-streamed his thoughts from a car in between the verdict and sentencing, including how he might spend his time in prison (finish writing his book).

Hsiung was given a suspended sentence which allows him to avoid jail time but requires him to serve 24 months of supervised probation and make restitution to the owners of the goat.  Oddly, one of Hsiung’s DxE cohorts posted on Hsiung’s Facebook page: “Wayne wanted prison time over probation, but the judge wouldn’t allow it.”  Prior to trial, in his “Musings on Incarceration” blog post, Hsiung shared his thoughts about prison: “it doesn’t seem so scary.  It seems, almost redemptive, both for me as an individual, for the many weaknesses and failings I’ve been afflicted by, and perhaps even (representatively) for our species.”

While not facing prison time, he will have to abide by the conditions of his probation.  As a licensed attorney, he also may be subject to disbarment proceedings from the California bar stemming from his criminal conviction.  Presumably, a criminal record may thwart future attempts to run for public office, such as his mayoral run in Berkeley back in 2020.

Hsiung and other DxE members had faced criminal charges in the past, but up until this trial, the charges had been dropped by prosecutors. (Click here to review DxE’s prior troubles with the law). The North Carolina trial was Hsiung’s first.  A California court had previously enjoined DxE for its violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law and “open rescue” actions against a California turkey ranch.  In that case, the Court had noted that DxE’s “rescue” practices violated biosecurity protocols that are in place to protect animals from disease vectors and pathogens and the integrity of the food supply.

But the North Carolina trial may not be DxE members’ last.  According to DxE’s Facebook page, 11 activists who “locked down California’s largest chicken slaughterhouse” will go to trial on December 14, 2021 in Merced, California, on the criminal charges of resisting arrest and obstructing or intimidating business operators.  It remains to be seen whether a different factfinder will recognize DxE’s actions as a “right to rescue” or as in this case, simply criminal conduct.