It took a flashlight and some careful tiptoeing along a dark trail behind an Orinda home to reach Lady Dee, a seven-month-old turkey hiding in a makeshift coop. Lady Dee was only visiting on a layover last week. In July, a group of East Bay “animal rescuers” snuck onto a Central Valley turkey farm and plucked her from the barn. She was one of seven turkeys smuggled off the land that night, saved from her sure destiny with slaughter. In a few days, she would be moved to her new home in the suburbs.
“We don’t like to give out the names of the people who take them in,” said Christine Morrissey, a youthful paralegal by day and animal rescuer by night. Morrissey held the flashlight in one hand while she cradled Lady Dee in her arms.
“She’s got a lot of personality,” she said. “When you look at her as something more than a meal on your plate, it puts things in a different light.”
Morrissey is the spokeswoman for a semiclandestine group called East Bay Animal Advocates, whose primary mission is to liberate farm animals. The group has performed three rescues since last year, willfully trespassing for what it perceives as a higher moral calling — to save animals from abuse and apply medical support to those in need. The group, which also is known as the Animal Advocates’ Animal Bureau of Investigations Team, published photos from two raids on its Web site recently. To urban eyes, the images of full barracks of laying hens are jarring, as is the photo of a bloodied turkey carcass poking its head out of one farm’s Dumpster.
“As advocates we’rIe bound to give these animals treatment,” Morrissey said. “When you’re going onto these properties, it’s kind of an exigent circumstance. These animals are being abused. It’s an emergency.”
Morrissey grew up in Pleasanton and worked at the McDonald’s off 580 and Santa Rita; she turned vegetarian at age fifteen. “Oddly enough, turkey was my last meal,” she said.
After graduating from Berkeley and volunteering at animal shelters, she organized a May 2003 protest outside a Livermore circus. The protest drew heavy media attention, which reenergized local animal activists. Afterward, Morrissey formed the five-member East Bay Animal Advocates. “That was the golden opportunity,” she said. “There wasn’t a solid local voice for animals in the East Bay.”
While the term “rescuing” has been mostly associated with domestic animals since the 1970s, “open rescuing” of farm animals is more contemporary. The practice is believed to have been started by Australian activists in the last decade. According to the official Open Rescue Web site (OpenRescue.org), the East Bay chapter is one of only six chapters in North America. The group says its philosophy is “based on the moral premise that it is wrong to knowingly let any individual, regardless of their species, die an unnecessarily slow, agonizing, and painful death. Rescue workers are bound by compassion, competence, and a willingness to always help others in need.”
East Bay Animal Advocates conducted its first rescue last November, while Morrissey and her cohorts were still working out the kinks. After dropping off the insurgents, Morrissey said, the driver was pulled over by the cops — and then let go. “Luck was on our side that night,” she said.
While inside the barn, Morrissey said the sting of ammonia and feces overwhelmed the group as they waded through inches of crap and hay. “It never quite leaves the smell of your clothes,” she said. “It’s in my car, too.”
The team stayed inside ten to fifteen minutes, snapping photographs and corralling a handful of pullets. One of the baby fowls saved from the mission was later named Adam by the group. Morrissey and the others took a liking to the chirpy pullet, whom Morrissey called “a true ambassador for his species.” In August, Adam died of unknown causes while in his new home; the group started “The Adam Fund” in his memory.
“He really showed people that these animals aren’t just faceless beings,” Morrissey said. “They’re individuals.”
Last March, East Bay Animal Advocates struck again — this time targeting the Freitas Fresh Eggs Farm in the Central Valley town of Newman. The valley houses more than two dozen egg farms, of which the Freitas farm is one of the largest. The business claims its chickens are “free range,” and allots the government-required 72 square inches per animal.
In most cases, Morrissey’s group refrains from publishing the name of the farm it hits; rather than holding one farm to the fire, Morrissey said the broader message is to call attention to farm animal abuse. In the Freitas case, however, the group was particularly agitated by its findings. It faxed a letter to Merced County Animal Control citing animal cruelty laws and posted the farm’s name on its Web site beneath photos of alleged abuse.
The heist stirred a commotion among the rural farmers. According to Kristi Garrett, an investigator with Merced County Animal Control, the theft was the first of its kind her office had heard about. After receiving the group’s letter, Garrett said she followed up on the cruelty complaint and headed out to the farm. Despite the group’s claims to the contrary, she found no smell of ammonia, and the birds’ fecal matter was dropping onto a conveyor belt that moved it out of the barn.
A person who identified himself as a manager of the egg farm refused to give his name. “I’m of the opinion that … anyone in the Bay Area will not understand what we’re doing out here and how we’re trying to make an honest living abiding by the rules,” he said. “We’re just trying to get along.”
The man said his facility had been inspected for six hours by the USDA just the day before. His claim was later corroborated by Dr. Nancy Reimers, a vegetarian who inspects egg farms for United Egg Producers, a lobbying group that ultimately is overseen by the USDA.
“They were in compliance with the program,” said Reimers, who declined to state when her last inspection occurred or how often she visits the egg farm.
The Freitas Farms manager said he sent evidence of the March trespass to the Merced County sheriff’s office. According to investigator Garrett, the district attorney’s office has received the complaint and is working on the case.”It’s a touchy subject out here,” she said. “People who make their living off of farm animals don’t view their animals like they would a domestic animal. These people obviously want them all to stop raising farm animals, but that’s not going to happen. Unless everyone stops eating chicken and eggs.”
Back in Orinda, with Lady Dee resting in the backyard coop, Morrissey said her group fears no prosecution. She identifies herself openly and will come forward to criminal investigators when asked. According to the Open Rescue Web site, “Activists involved in open rescue identify themselves because they are prepared to stand strong in their actions and suffer any consequences that may occur due to possible trespass.”
After the Freitas Farms rescue, Morrissey said her mother got a call from a deputy with the Merced County sheriff’s office, who was apparently curious about her daughter’s actions; her mom gave them nothing, Morrissey reported. Morrissey herself also got a message from the sheriff’s office, but no follow-up calls.
Morrissey is aware that she’s viewed by farmers and investigators as a scofflaw first. But in her view, her moral code trumps the rights of the farm animal owners. “I’m ready to deal with whatever comes my way,” she said. “But it’s worth it.”