BERKELEY (KPIX) -- For months, a Bay Area based animal liberation group has staged daring rescues of animals suffering inside factory farms without getting caught or arrested.
It seemed as if they were untouchable but now their luck has run out.
A Utah prosecutor has charged Wayne Hsiung, leader of the group DxE, and five other members with felony theft. The charges are connected to what DxE refers to as a "rescue" of a sick turkey from a Utah turkey farm that belongs to national turkey supplier Norbest. The group uncovered horrific conditions at the farm, including rotten diseased birds eating each other alive.
Animal rights groups have been exposing shocking videos of inhumane conditions at factory farms for decades. What sets DxE apart is that they don't wear masks. Their followers are worldwide and growing.
So are their critics.
You may have seen them holding a funeral for turkeys at your local Whole Foods, re-enacting makeup testing on animals at a Mac store or being tackled by a San Francisco Giant while protesting hot dog meat at the ball park.
Their name is Direct Action Everywhere or DxE, and they desperately want your attention.
"So you think you have to be sensational to get people to listen?" we asked the group's co-founder Wayne Hsiung.
His response: "I think we have to provoke."
Unlike most animal activists who hide their identities Wayne proudly shows his unmasked face while breaking and entering into farms to save animals that he believes are being mistreated. The videos are posted on Facebook. The rescue of Lily the Piglet from a commercial hog farm is the most popular, with more than a million views.
"We show our faces because we believe in our actions we believe what we're doing is not something we should hide," said Hsiung. He's a former law professor and former meat eater turned vegan. He knows the law and isn't afraid to break it to raise awareness.
Usually DxE goes after large-scale factory farms where they've rescued animals from filthy conditions and cannibalism. But recently Hsiung crossed a new line. This winter he live streamed on Facebook an apparent break-in to steal a baby goat from a small family farm in the Bay Area.
"A lot of people believe falsely that small scale farming is more humane. But if that animal is being sold for slaughter there is a profit motive that will prevent that animal from being well treated," said Hsiung.
Judy Hoffman, a Boer goat farmer in Anderson, disagrees.
"These guys are terrorists for the farming community they're terrorists," said Hoffman.
When she saw the open rescue she was enraged. "As a farming community of any kind of animal we feel threatened that he has a call to arms to people that it's okay to do this," she said.
Judy knows every goat by name on her Bear Creek ranch. Most of them are 4H animals. Kids pay for the livestock with their own money, train them, and take them to competition where they bring home belt buckle prizes the size of pancakes. She thinks this is the kind of goat Wayne stole that night.
"I'm not opposed to anyone being vegan that's their right. What's not their right is to steal," said Hoffman.
Hoffman says the open rescue may have been staged for publicity, because, to date, no farm has come forward complaining about a theft.
"He's making a ton of money off this so yeah all this sensationalism it's going into his pocket," said Hoffman.
KPIX looked into DxE's finances: Friends of DxE, a non-profit that funds DxE's campaigns, brought in just under a half a million dollars in 2016 but not a dollar of that went toward people's salaries. Instead, proceeds went to protests and conferences.
Last year the FBI raided two animal sanctuaries looking for Lily the Piglet and several other piglets from the same factory farm. DxE was never charged.
"So how many times have you been arrested for your work?" we asked Hsiung. His response: "I've been arrested now well over a dozen times." "How many times have those charges stuck?" we asked. "His response: "To date zero."
Hsiung firmly believes that, 100 years from now, people will see animal rights as the next frontier of social justice. For now, he's willing to accept the consequences of a society that doesn't agree with him.
"I fully expect to go to prison someday and I'm fine with that because I think it is the cost of creating change."
Hsiung's prediction may now come true. Thursday's charges could land him and five other members of the group in prison for up to ten years.
for more features.