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Activism, prospective ballot fight heighten drama of Sonoma County bird flu outbreak



December 3, 2023

An outbreak of avian influenza at two poultry farms in Sonoma County was always going to be a crisis.

It means millions of dollars in economic losses. It puts scores of jobs on the line. And it threatens the health of hundreds of thousands of birds on nearby ranches.

Already, more than 250,000 ducks and laying hens have had to be euthanized on the two farms where the virus has been detected, eliminating their entire stock.

The families in charge said they hope to recover but face a long road ahead.

“It’s devastating,” said Philip Reichardt, part of the six-generation family that owns and operates Reichardt Duck Farm near Two Rock and, for the first time in 113 years, has no live ducks on its farm after nearly 170,000 were euthanized.

“It’s so quiet and so weird out there,” said his father, John Reichardt.

The lethal bird flu outbreak hit as local poultry farmers were already on the defensive. The industry has been under attack from animal welfare protesters for nearly a decade, and the current drama erupted as activists are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would drastically limit animal agriculture in Sonoma County.

The activists have targeted Sonoma County poultry farms with protests, surveillance operations and have even infiltrated several operations, including at Reichardt Duck Farm as recently as Oct. 24 and Nov. 14.

Members of Direct Action Everywhere’s Berkeley-based Bay Area chapter have ramped up action over the past few years to document what they say are inhumane conditions at crowded facilities where birds or animals have become ill or injured.

Their tactics have become increasingly advanced, using unauthorized photos to advance their campaign and drones to capture site footage.

Agricultural leaders also point to the recent release of a 149-page ”Investigation Manual“ — touching on everything from burner phones, thermal imaging, night-vision cameras and infrared lighting to drills, duct tape, data encryption and biosecure clothing — as evidence of the animal liberation group’s commitment to illicit activity and implied malice.

The manual was produced by a national organization called Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, whose local members recently joined forces with other like-minded groups to form the Coalition to End Factory Farming, which in August launched a local initiative that would require substantial reductions in the number of animals allowed at local ranches, dairies, poultry and egg farms in Sonoma County by ordinance.

The group is circulating petitions to gain the nearly 20,000 signatures needed to put the measure before voters in November 2024 — a move viewed by local agricultural interests as a direct threats to dozens of family farms and other operations and even the region’s food supply.

Based on misconceptions

They say the measure is based on misconceptions and falsehoods about an industry that has embraced organic operations and made strides to safeguard water quality, limit carbon emissions and use water efficiently.

The detection of avian influenza Nov. 22 at Reichardt Duck Farm — within the 10- to 14-day incubation period after activists were known to be on the grounds — and discovery of the virus five days later at Sunrise Farms off Bodega Avenue, about 2 miles away, has provoked suspicions, even accusations linking DxE to the infection.

Avian flu has been on the march across the country for nearly two years, carried primarily by waterfowl and other wild birds. It’s hit 47 states, been detected in wild birds locally and turned up in commercial flocks Fresno, Merced and San Benito counties since late October.

But folks like Michael Weber, one of several partners in Sunrise Farms, say the coincidence of activists’ focus on his operation and nearby Reichardt Dark Farm — the very two places recently devastated by avian flu — is just too great.

“You can’t say it’s not suspicious when somebody breaks in to the building and a week later you break with HPAI after a hundred years of not having it,” Weber said, referring to High Pathogen Avian Influenza, the type detected in Sonoma County.

The circumstantial evidence, Reichardt conceded, makes it “hard to think otherwise.”

Some have begun calling DxE members “bioterrorists,” given their practices and the suspicions of agricultural leaders about how the virus was introduced.

Just the timing of the entry at Reichardt’s compared with the bird flu outbreak “should scare the crap out of anyone,” said dairy farmer Doug Beretta, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

“The first thing I think you have to understand is this group is not an animal activist group. They are an animal terrorist group,” Beretta said.

DxE members and supporters loudly deny these accusations or any suggestion they would put an animal at risk.

“Reichardt Duck Farm has had rampant disease among its flocks for a decade now, as exposed by numerous investigations and necropsy reports,” representative Cassie King wrote in an email Friday. “The company has a host of poor biosecurity practices including cramming ducks together in massive barns with mesh walls. It's no surprise to hear that they have an outbreak of avian flu.”

Activist: biosecurity measures used

One activist, Zoe Rosenberg — whose role has been so prominent that members of the agriculture community refer to her by first name — said in an email Saturday that the walls at Reichardt are easily penetrated by wild birds, which could carry the disease.

And she said DxE members use veterinarian-approved biosecurity measures “that go above and beyond industry standards.”

They include quarantining away from poultry, waterfowl and other birds for a minimum of seven days before entering a facility, sanitizing equipment and putting on freshly sanitized clothes before going on property, Rosenberg said. Then before entering barns, they don biosecure suits, shoe covers, hair covers and other gear.

“Unlike factory farm operators, animal welfare activists see every animal’s life as inherently valuable,” Rosenberg wrote. “It would be completely against DxE's values and my values of nonviolence as well as our compassion for animals to intentionally introduce a pathogen into a facility. Introducing a pathogen as deadly as Avian Flu would not only lead to mass death and suffering for all of the animals in that facility, it could also impact wild birds and, potentially, other domesticated birds in the surrounding areas.”

She and others also said they believe farmers are trying to divert blame from conditions that activists say contribute to disease and injury — the very conditions “investigators” have been trying to expose and avoid through the ballot initiative to reduce the size of what are called confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, allowed in Sonoma County.

DxE members describe themselves as investigators who have tried to offer what they believe is evidence of animal cruelty to law enforcement and sometimes remove individuals in “live rescues” for treatment and rehabilitation.

They claim they have the “right to rescue” under the state’s animal cruelty laws, though a Sonoma County jury recently rejected that claim in finding DxE founder Wayne Hsiung guilty of conspiracy and trespassing in connection with actions at Sunrise Farms in May 2018 and Reichardt Duck Farm a year later.

At his sentencing Thursday — he was given 90 days in jail and two years probation and ordered to stay away from alleged co-conspirators — Superior Court Judge Laura Passaglia said, “This behavior will not be tolerated in this county.”

Rosenberg now faces her own criminal prosecution. She was arrested Thursday during protests outside Hsiung’s sentencing for actions at Petaluma Poultry last June and at Reichardt Duck Farm. She said she’s facing seven felony charges, six misdemeanors and more than 20 years in prison.

Open about activities

She has generally been open about her activities and made numerous social media posts about visits to Reichardt’s during Hsiung’s prosecution.

Philip Reichardt also said security camera footage from the farm shows four intruders on the property, including one who appeared to be Rosenberg, on Nov. 14. An employee earlier encountered two unauthorized people in a barn Oct. 24.

Rosenberg said no one from DxE had been to the Sunrise site where bird flu has erupted, and called it “virtually impossible” for activists to have carried the virus onto the grounds at Reichardt’s.

Agricultural leaders argue that local farms practice extreme measures to protect their animals and couldn’t stay in business if they were reckless, as critics claim. They have federal health and safety standards to abide by and undergo routine inspections that would reveal ill treatment or substandard conditions.

But Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director at the farm bureau, said she expected the recent flu outbreak would be used to argue otherwise and to try to promote the ballot measure.

“It takes a lot of time, energy and money to combat their dis- or misinformation,” she said. “This avian flu is far more serious than some BS emotional game, and that’s what they’ve turned this into.

“This is our food supply. These are our neighbors, and this is our community,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of Judge Laura Passaglia.


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