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Playing Chicken 

Multiple county agencies pass the buck on animal cruelty at local farms

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Who is responsible for enforcing state anti–animal cruelty laws at our local farms? The answer is, apparently, no one.

Last September, 58 activists with Direct Action Everywhere were arrested for trying to provide aid to wounded, sick and starving chickens at a Petaluma farm. The activists claim they had provided evidence to several different agencies detailing animal cruelty at this and other farms, but no action had been taken. Under California Code 597e, they claimed they were entitled to provide that aid without fear of liability.

We'll see how that plays out. But my question is: Why did it come to this? Why didn't our local officials investigate and address allegations of animal cruelty after more than a year of being provided evidence? Over the past few weeks, animal rights activists including myself have talked to several different agencies and apparently no one is willing to take responsibility for enforcing the animal-cruelty laws on the books as they pertain to farm animals. California has passed some important laws about how farm animals are to be treated, but unless someone is willing to enforce them, what's the point?

We've been in contact with multiple agencies recently over this question. Here's what we've learned: Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch says that it's the job of the county's Animal Services division to investigate and recommend animal-cruelty charges be filed when appropriate. Sonoma County Animal Services says they don't do this for farm animals. They are focused on pets and will intervene if the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office asks them to. They say the SCSO should be doing the investigations.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick says it's not his department's responsibility either. He says allegations of animal cruelty at local farms fall under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. But that agency says they don't investigate animal cruelty. They are responsible for food safety, with a mission to protect and promote agriculture, not enforce animal-cruelty laws. They say it's the job of local law enforcement, the SCSO, to investigate allegations of animal cruelty.

None of these agencies would agree to meet together and figure out what the policy is for enforcing our animal-cruelty laws. They all just want to toss this hot potato as far away as possible.

It appears the SCSO is responsible for enforcing the state laws, but is not willing to accept this responsibility. It just doesn't take animal-cruelty seriously when it comes to farm animals. But it's not Essick's job to pick and choose which laws he wants to enforce, despite being endorsed by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau in his 2018 campaign for sheriff (the Farm Bureau also endorsed Ravitch).

The animal-rights activists exposed horrific animal cruelty at local farms, and local officials are spending our tax dollars going after the whistleblowers who exposed these crimes, instead of the animal abusers. I understand that agriculture is an important part of our economy, but that doesn't mean the farms can operate outside the law. This problem is not going away by arresting the whistleblowers. We need more leadership and enforcement of the law in this county, and less passing of the buck.

Doug Moeller lives in Santa Rosa.

Open Mic is a weekly feature in the 'Bohemian.' We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 350 words considered for publication, write openmic@bohemian.com.

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