Column: From Big Law to jail, animal rights activist seeks to break new legal ground

By Jenna Greene

Jan 4 (Reuters) - Animal rights activist Wayne Hsiung had moments when he imagined another future, one where he stayed comfortably ensconced at a high-powered law firm doing securities litigation.

Instead, Hsiung was released from jail in Santa Rosa, California, last month.

During nearly six weeks behind bars, he ate 107 meals in a row of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, he told me, given the scant vegan options at the Sonoma County facility.

His crime? Conspiring to commit trespass at two poultry farms, where he and fellow protesters said chickens and ducks were being mistreated.

It’s a long way from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, where Hsiung, 42, started his legal career as a visiting assistant professor, or the plush hallways of Steptoe, then DLA Piper, where he worked as an associate from 2010 to 2014.

Hsiung, who earned his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, is in the vanguard of a legal movement that seeks to establish “animal personhood,” affording non-human creatures greater legal standing in the eyes of the law.

“Animals are not just property,” said Hsiung, who as “an overweight Chinese kid in Central Indiana” traces his love for animals to the solace his dog offered from bullying peers. “They are beings that can suffer great bodily harm.”

For those who eat meat — myself included — it’s easy to pick up a pound of hamburger at the grocery store and not give much thought to how it got there. Hsiung’s work documenting instances of suffering makes doing that more difficult.

As co-founder of two California-based animal rights groups, Direct Action Everywhere and The Simple Heart Initiative, Hsiung has engaged in “open rescue,” entering private farms or other facilities around the country to remove sick or injured animals, get them veterinary care and re-home them in sanctuaries – often livestreaming the events on social media.

Pointing to laws in 14 states that allow people to rescue dogs left in hot cars, he and his supporters argue that removing unwell animals from wretched conditions in factory farms is likewise justified.

“Existing California law supports our intuition that animals can suffer and be harmed,” said Harvard Law School professor Kristen Stilt, an animal law expert who submitted an amicus brief on Hsiung’s behalf in the Sonoma County case.

Actions taken to rescue animals should be “treated the same as actions taken to rescue humans from immediate harm and suffering,” she told me, allowing defendants to invoke the “necessity defense” – that is, that they acted in an emergency to prevent a significant bodily harm, and that there was no adequate legal alternative.

The Sonoma County charges against Hsiung stemmed from protests in 2018 and 2019 at two farms near Petaluma involving hundreds of activists. Some allegedly entered the properties, refused to leave and took chickens and ducks.

Other activists settled or had their charges dismissed. But Hsiung, who was charged with felony conspiracy to commit trespass and two misdemeanor counts of trespassing rather than stealing any birds, went to trial.

Representing himself, he told 12 Sonoma County jurors during opening statements in October, he had “no bad intent, much less intent to commit a crime.”

But where he sees a moral imperative to intervene, others see trespass and theft.

“Mr. Hsiung went beyond mere activism and decided to engage in unlawful, reckless, and potentially dangerous behavior, putting the farmers, their employees, and flocks of birds at risk of harm by his conduct,” Sonoma County District Attorney Carla Rodriguez said in a news release after Hsiung in November was sentenced to 90 days in county jail. (He served 38 days before he was granted early release.)

Hsiung has lodged a notice of appeal challenging his conviction, but his legal fights don’t end there.

He faces an upcoming criminal trial in Wisconsin in March for taking a blind beagle from a research facility in 2017 and is appealing a larceny conviction (his sentence was suspended) in North Carolina for removing a baby goat from a farm in 2018.

In 2022, however, he did prevail at trial in Utah. Jurors in St. George found him not guilty of burglary and theft for taking two sick piglets — which Hsiung argued had no monetary value — from a farm owned by Smithfield Foods.

He’s also been hit with more than $300,000 in civil liability judgments and is barred under the terms of his probation from any contact for the next two years with 14 fellow activists, among them his closest friends.

As a convicted felon, Hsiung’s California bar membership could also be in jeopardy.

Still, he seems sanguine about the personal toll of his activism. “Historically, incarceration has been a part of virtually every social movement that succeeded,” he said.

Animal rights and speciesism are “the next frontier of social justice,” he said, pointing to work by Martha Nussbaum, a jointly appointed law and philosophy professor at the University of Chicago.

In her 2023 book “Justice for Animals,” Nussbaum draws a parallel between the rights of animals today and the legal status of women not so long ago, when all over the world they were treated as objects or property.

“A married woman had no independent legal agency: she could not sue, or manage her own finances,” Nussbaum wrote, noting that New Zealand in 1893 became the first nation to grant suffrage to women and Saudi Arabia in 2015 became the last.

Nussbaum writes that existing animal protection laws tend to be rarely enforced, and that concerned citizens are usually denied standing to intervene. “The only real solution to this problem is to grant standing to animals to enter court as plaintiffs in their own right, through a duly appointed fiduciary,” Nussbaum argues, noting that courts in India and Colombia have done just that.

Hsiung told me people often misconstrue what he means when he says animals should have rights.

He’s not talking about the right to vote or to an education. “But the right to be free from cruelty and captivity? That is the right of all sentient beings – and it's important for our legal system to recognize it.”

(Reporting by Jenna Greene)

((jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com;))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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