Wayne Hsiung, a founder of the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, was convicted to two felonies in North Carolina on Dec. 6. Credit: Wayne for Mayor

Wayne Hsiung, the animal rights activist who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Berkeley in 2020, was convicted of felony charges this week for stealing a baby goat from a North Carolina farm.

This is the first time Hsiung has been convicted of felony charges though he faces more than a dozen criminal charges for taking animals from private property in numerous states. Most of the other charges have been dropped or have not yet come up for trial. During his mayoral campaign, Hsiung said he did not think that the jail time he might face would interfere with his ability to be an effective mayor.

The judge in Transylvania County Superior Court sentenced Hsiung to a six-to-17-month suspended sentence for felony larceny and felony breaking and entering. Hsiung will also serve 24 months on supervised probation. The judge ordered Hsiung to pay $250 in restitution to the goat breeder he stole from.

Hsiung said he plans to appeal.

Hsiung had hoped to argue in court that he had a legal basis to take the 6-day-old goat from Sospiro Ranch in February 2018 because he thought the goat was suffering and might face a cruel death if butchered. Direct Action Everywhere, the Berkeley-based animal rights group Hsiung co-founded in 2013, has done many of what it calls “open rescues” around the U.S. in part to advance this legal agenda and call attention to what it considers animal cruelty in factory farms.

But most courts are not allowing the introduction of the right-to-rescue concept, as Hsiung and a group of sympathetic attorneys discussed on a September panel at an Animal Liberation conference in Oakland.

That was what happened in North Carolina. When Hsiung, who represented himself, tried to bring up some of the philosophy behind his decision to take the goat in opening arguments, the district attorneys on the case objected and Judge Peter Knight upheld the objections, according to the Transylvania Times.

“During opening statements last Thursday, Superior Court Judge Peter Knight sustained so many of prosecutors’ Robert Bracket and Jason Hayes’ objections, Hsiung couldn’t finish his opening statements to the jury,” the paper reported.

sketch of man in suit delivering arguments in court
Artist sketch of Wayne Hsiung delivering his closing argument to Transylvania County jurors on Dec. 6. Credit: Kitty Jones/Direct Action Everywhere

The judge also granted the district attorney’s pretrial motions to exclude testimony from a vet who wanted to discuss the goat’s condition, according to the Transylvania Times.

“Knight also dismissed a motion from Hsiung … which sought to dismiss his charges on animal personhood grounds and argued, ‘a sentient non-human animal is not property subject to the state’s larceny statute,’” the paper reported.

Hsuing said in his Substack newsletter on Dec. 6 that getting convicted was actually a victory and was part of DxE’s long-range plan to draw attention to its cause. “The most important thing, going back even to the days when DxE was founded in early 2013, was for us to harness repression to create change,” he wrote.

“We have seen time and time again that, when movements prove resilient, efforts to repress them can be used to jumpstart their power,” Hsiung wrote. “The reason, quite simply, is that there is power in sacrifice. When we nonviolently bear the pain that the state or industry impose on us, and continue pushing forward with our cause, it engenders tremendous sympathy in the public.”

The trial centered around an action Hsiung and other DxE activists took in February 2018. They traveled at night to Sospiro Ranch, owned by Curtis and Susan Burnside, in Ashville. The event was livestreamed on Facebook. It was the second time Hsiung had broken into the farm to take a goat, he has acknowledged. In this instance, Hsiung can be seen entering a barn holding a mother goat and her two 6-day-old babies. Even though Hsiung criticized the size of the pen, it is dry, covered with fresh hay, and large enough for Hsiung to enter and crouch down. (In contrast, conditions in other farms that DxE has entered are much less spacious.) Hsiung acknowledges in the video that this Sospiro Ranch is not a factory farm but a small-scale operation. He goes on to make some generalizations about how killing goats is cruel.

The owner of the farm said in a rebuttal on his website that Sospiro Ranch is not in the business of raising goats primarily to kill them. It sells goats to people who want to raise herds for land management, to breed, or for people in 4-H and FFA. However, the farm does sell goat meat, according to its website.

While in the pen, Hsiung said, “It’s heartbreaking to take this baby away from its mother. We are going to say we are sorry to this mother and tell her that we are going to give her baby a good life.”

“Nip Nap, his mother, cried for days and was beside herself looking for her lost baby,” Burnside wrote on his website.

DxE later said a vet determined the baby goat had pneumonia. Burnside said the goat was healthy in the pen but Hsiung took it outside in the rain and later fed it incorrectly, leading the goat to aspirate and get pneumonia.

The goat that Direct Action Everywhere named Rain. The rancher the goat was stolen from had named him Freddy. Credit: Direct Action Everywhere

In the video, as DxE members speed away in the car, the baby goat is in the front seat and appears healthy and alert. It jumped around.

DxE later named the goat Rain. Curtis Burnside had named him Freddy.

Burnside said on his website that Hsiung stole the goat in part as a way to raise money for DxE. Berkeleyside has asked DxE what has happened to the baby goat and how much money the organization raised around the operation.

While rescuing animals is a central part of many of DxE’s most dramatic videos, Berkeleyside reported in October 2020 that DxE spends only a small fraction of the money it raises on taking care of them, according to the nonprofit organization’s 990s, which it must file with the Internal Revenue Service. In 2019, the organization spent 2.46% of its budget ($17,935 out of $726,692 raised) on “animal care.”

Hsiung told Berkeleyside that was normal in the movement. Most organizations that rescue animals just pay for the animals’ immediate veterinarian bills. Hsiung said he thought DxE actually spent a larger percentage of its funds on direct animal care than most organizations, just not for long-term care.

Update: 5:19 p.m. DxE said the goat is alive and well at an animal sanctuary. Matt Johnson, a spokesperson, said the organization is not naming the location.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...