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The misplaced priorities of prosecutors in North Carolina
Animals are victims, too. It's time for our legal system to recognize that.
This will be the first of many posts I plan to make about open rescue and my upcoming trial, which will begin on November 29. I haven’t said much about it partly because we weren’t sure it was going to happen. But the date is now set. It seems unlikely to change. And, after 20 years, I’ll finally have my chance to make the case for animal rights in a court of law. I hope you follow that journey.
The new District Attorney in Transylvania, Polk, and Henderson counties, Andrew Murray, comes into office with a daunting challenge: repairing the trust of the people he represents. For years, victims of violent crime have been ignored by the prior District Attorney, Greg Newman, while powerful men were protected. But while some were shocked by the disclosures made at Newman’s removal hearing, I was not. As a lawyer, former law professor, and criminal defendant, I agree with the criticisms of the law enforcement priorities of Newman’s office. That is precisely why Murray, to restore trust, must come into office with a new perspective: protect those who have the least voice in our legal system: children, women, and, yes, animals, too.
On February 16, 2018, I was charged with felony burglary and larceny relating to the removal of a sick baby goat from a meat farm in Pisgah Forest, NC. I had and have no intention to call out the individual business owners, who are themselves often pressed to cut corners by an unforgiving market. But after hearing credible complaints about animal abuse from local citizens, and seeing inaction by the local government in response to these complaints, I knew that something needed to be done. When a system is not functioning to protect those who suffer, someone must assist those who have no other hope.
Relying on Good Samaritan provisions of North Carolina law, we took action to assist baby goats who were suffering from serious ailments including pneumonia and coccidia. We gave animals aid and brought them to local animal rescue organizations. We have always published these rescues openly, even with the understanding that industry interests could seek to punish us. But we did so with a belief that the local communities would ultimately side with us in the court of law. Violence against animals, after all, is a crime in every state in the nation.
Extending legal protections to food animals, however, faces incredible (and sometimes unconstitutional) pushback from the industry. I therefore was not surprised when supporters of the industry hurled death threats at me when we posted openly about our rescue. What I did not anticipate was the efforts that local law enforcement, under Greg Newman, would take to assist this hateful and violent campaign. Without any effort to contact me, I was taken off a plane and arrested upon arriving in Asheville to speak at a local charitable function sponsored by Brother Wolf Animal Rescue. Subsequently, a local woman, who runs a small grassroots animal rescue, faced harassment by law enforcement after an apparent tip that a baby goat taken from a meat producer might be on her property. (The goat wasn’t.)
These actions showed the operating philosophy of Newman’s office: decide who to identify with, politically, and use the powers of your office to support those people or industries, regardless of community needs – or the law.
In the goat rescue case, I happened to be on the other side of that political calculus. As an animal rights activist and Buddhist from Berkeley, California, I am not in Newman’s political tribe. Neither was the woman who was harassed in Henderson County. She is a progressive in a conservative county, who spends most of her time rescuing animals who have been abused. But the fact that Newman did not agree with our point of view does not mean it lacks public support. The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office received, by their own admission, more complaints about this prosecution than any in their history, including thousands of phone calls.
But you don’t have to agree with my perspective to appreciate the fact that an animal rescue dispute should not be a law enforcement priority. Violent crime, like the crimes against women and children that Newman’s office failed to address, should be. It’s hard to do that, however, when you are chasing down baby goats and threatening a single mom for her efforts to rescue animals.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that there is no basis for the criminal charges against me. As an attorney and former law professor, I fully understand the risks one takes in using nonviolent direct action. However, that does not justify the harassment of local residents, for the supposed crime of rescuing animals, or the refusal to engage in good faith investigations of animal cruelty. In many ways, the case of animals is a litmus test. If our legal system proves that it enforces the law to protect even those who have the least power in it, such as animals, perhaps it will finally prove that it can protect us all.
We should all be asking Andrew Murray to make that a priority, and to ensure all those who have had their voice silenced, are finally heard.