“Baywatch” star Alexandra Paul and Alicia Santurio were acquitted of misdemeanor theft charges by a 12-person jury in Merced on Friday for their actions in September 2021 when they “rescued” two chickens from a truck that was heading into a Livingston slaughterhouse owned by Foster Farms.
Paul and Santurio are members of the international animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), which is leading a campaign to establish the legal “Right to Rescue" animals from abuse.
“Today’s verdict represents an important, legal affirmation of the right to rescue farmed animals who are suffering, diseased, or otherwise in danger of an inhumane death,” said law professor and civil rights attorney Justin Marceau. “Commonsense and basic decency dictate that when another being is suffering, we should provide aid or care for them when we are able to do so.”
Video of the September 2021 “rescue” shows Paul and Santurio running up to a truck stopped on a road that is hauling caged chickens. The two open one of the cages and take two of the chickens before running back to their car stopped on the same road.
The video of the rescue was published online within an hour of it happening. Both defendants took the stand at trial to speak openly about why they rescued the chickens, who they named Ethan and Jax. Santurio testified about “animal cruelty and neglect” she has seen inside Foster Farms factory farms during investigations at five different facilities. Paul stated that she had seen footage of animal cruelty at the Foster Farms Livingston slaughterhouse, and that she believed her action was legally and morally right. The court ruled that the hidden camera footage from inside the slaughterhouse and the legal opinions regarding open rescue could not be shown to the jury.
The two rescued chickens, Ethan and Jax, were taken by Paul and Santurio to receive medical care. Jax is still alive today living at an animal sanctuary, but Ethan passed away a few days after the rescue. A necropsy report from UC Davis found that Ethan had infectious bronchitis virus (IBV), enterococcus faecium, and E. coli. Dr. Sherstin Rosenberg, who the defense called as an expert witness, testified that IBV is an extremely contagious coronavirus with a mortality rate as high as 60%, and that the enterococcus faecium and E. coli pathogens posed a public health risk.
Eligio Hernandez, who was driving the transport truck when the rescue happened, testified that every day birds die in the truck.
The “rescue” of the chickens on their way to Foster Farms occurred on the same day DxE released hidden camera footage filmed inside the Livingston slaughterhouse. The video shows chickens being moved along an automated assembly line, routinely missing the stun bath and a device designed to cut their necks, leaving it to workers to identify conscious birds before their evisceration, at a speed of 140 shackles a minute. DxE says the conduct constitutes a violation of company policy, its American Humane animal welfare certification, and California animal cruelty laws.
The Merced case marks the second acquittal for open rescue activists in what DxE says could be a series of legal wins that opens the floodgates to a new view of animals under the law. Last year, a Utah jury issued a groundbreaking “not guilty” verdict for two DxE members who rescued sick piglets from a Smithfield Foods factory pig farm.
“This is how we shape history, by using our privileges to confront unjust industries that exploit animals,” said Paul.
"They did what they did because they knew somewhere out there, there was a little bird sick and scared and collapsed on the floor of a slaughterhouse truck, crying out for help, and what Alexandra and Alicia intended, what they want more than anything in the world, was for that little bird who has never known any kindness in their life, to feel love for the first time,” said Hsiung, a former Northwestern Law visiting professor who represented Paul, in his closing remarks to jurors.
Merced County Judge Paul Lo, who presided over the trial, denied the defense’s motion to present a necessity defense, but granted the defense’s motions in limine regarding an advice of counsel defense and mistake of law defense. This allowed the defendants to testify about conversations they had with lawyers prior to the rescue and what they believed at the time they took action -- namely, that they believed they had a right to rescue animals from Foster Farms' cruelty.
“This is a victory for Ethan, Jax, and all other living beings subjected to abuse by corporations like Foster Farms,” said Santurio. “I have so much love for the chickens in my family and I want all animals to experience that safety and respect.”
Judge Lo thanked the jurors for their deliberation and said, “This is not a case about just two chickens. It’s about very important principles.”