Almira Tanner
Published on
September 11, 2020

When giving someone a drink of water becomes an act of civil disobedience

The headline in the LA Times immediately grabbed my attention. “As fire burns, activists sneak in to bring water to parched elk. Should they?” As an animal rights activist, it probably would have drawn me in regardless, but this one hit particularly close to home. That’s because I’m facing seven felony charges for doing essentially the same thing, but instead of elk, they were chickens. 

It’s been almost two years since myself and 57 other DxE activists were arrested at McCoy’s Poultry Services in Petaluma, California. We arrived at the farm with medical supplies, food, and water, immediately set up a first aid tent, and began looking for animals in distress. Because of the way chickens have been genetically manipulated throughout decades of industrialized animal agriculture, they grow so quickly that their legs often give out. When you plan on killing someone at six weeks of age, you’re not particularly concerned about their long term health and mobility. If you’ve ever been inside a chicken farm, you will have certainly seen chickens limping around with one or both of their legs splayed out to the side. Besides just being incredibly painful, this condition can lead chickens to become so disabled they can no longer reach food and water, especially in a barn crowded with 10,000+ birds fighting for survival. Despite animal cruelty laws that prohibit denying animals basic necessities like food, water and shelter, corporations are almost never held accountable for their suffering. We report these conditions to authorities on a regular basis, yet business goes on as usual. So in the fall of 2018, we made a decision that we would go and help them ourselves. A large group of us discussed the risks. We knew that we could be arrested, charged, and even spend years in prison, but the thought of denying someone a simple drink of water was just too unjust to sit back and do nothing. 

DxE activist Rachel Ziegler providing water to a dehydrated hen and being arrested shortly after

Just over twenty miles away from McCoy’s, only a couple weeks ago, a separate group of activists were likely having the exact same conversation. The Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore are dying. Through a series of decisions made by government officials and the National Park Service (NPS), the elk have been sequestered to a part of the park enclosed by a three-mile long, eight-foot tall fence so they will not “disturb” the ranches that occupy large parts of the public land. Inside this area there are bodies of water but because of the heat waves and droughts that are plaguing California, many of them are dried up. The NPS says they are monitoring the situation - the same line they gave several years ago during a drought that killed 254 of the 540 elk - yet they haven’t provided any water to the elk and have barred people from entering the park to do so. So once again, a group of activists took matters into their own hands. They waited until the last ranger left in the evening, then quietly entered the park with large jugs in their hands and filled a trough full of water for the elk. 

Activist bringing water to the dehydrated elk at Point Reyes National Seashore

Scott Warren likely had a similar conversation, too, when he and other members of the organization No More Deaths set out into the Sonoran Desert to provide water for migrants attempting to cross the border. To say the terrain is harsh would be an understatement. Temperatures can reach 120 degrees and since the year 2000, over 3,000 migrants have died in the desert, many from dehydration. No More Deaths volunteers leave jugs of water, tins of food, and emergency medical supplies at points along the route where migrant deaths have been reported in an attempt to prevent future deaths. These aid stations are often destroyed by US Border Patrol, who have been documented dumping out over 4,000 gallons of water. Yet it’s the No More Deaths volunteers who are prosecuted. Many activists have been charged, including Warren who has faced felonies totaling up to twenty years in prison for his humanitarian work. 

No More Deaths volunteer carrying water to leave for migrants in the Sonoran Desert

I cannot help but see the parallels between the story of the chickens at McCoy’s, the elk in Point Reyes, and the migrants in the desert. I say this not to compare the victims, but rather the system of oppression at play*. It should be a real wake up call that governments and corporations can be so callous as to deny people the right to water and, worse still, criminalize the basic act of kindness of giving someone a drink. But despite the repression, I do have hope. Warren was acquitted of all his charges, drawing national attention to the plight of migrants and refugees. Cities like Berkeley and San Francisco have condemned the animal cruelty at factory farms across California as well as the prosecution of me and my fellow activists. And resoundingly, the public answered “Yes!” to the question posed in the LA Times headline.

Too often, laws and our legal system are poor reflections of morality and of the will of the people. And in order to change these unjust laws, they will need to be challenged. For some of us, that will mean risking our freedom, our safety, and maybe even our lives. But you don’t need to be in a position to engage in civil disobedience to support it. If you think giving someone water when they are thirsty is the right thing to do, whether that someone is a chicken, a human, or an elk, then you’re already on our team. Join the DxE network and help create revolutionary social and political change for animals in one generation. 

*I do not intend to directly compare the suffering of chickens, elk, and migrant humans. The animal rights movement has historically compared the suffering and exploitation of humans and other animals in unproductive and shallow ways. Rather, I am aiming to show the similarities between the oppressive systems and laws that exploit each of these marginalized groups and the activists who choose to disobey them in order to provide aid.

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