The Berkeley activist who puts her body on the line to fight animal cruelty

Priya Sawhney has been jailed three times, faces eight felonies, and confronted Jeff Bezos in an effort to call attention to cruelty to animals. She’s not done fighting.

Priya Sawhney, a co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere, also called DxE. The group’s headquarters are in Berkeley. Photo: Yuriria Avila

On the morning of Saturday, Oct. 11, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 44, making California the first state to ban fur. At the same time, inside the Berkeley Animal Rescue Center on Channing Way, Priya Sawhney ate a vegan cake to celebrate the moment with other members of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), an advocacy group that had been fighting for the ban since 2016.

Sawhney, a Berkeley resident, is one of the four elected leaders of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of DxE, an international organization that advocates for animal rights — often by breaking into farms and slaughterhouses to whisk away animals its members think are being raised in crowded and unsafe conditions. The organization also uses civil disobedience, direct action and the courts to fight for the rights of captive creatures intended for human consumption. Members contend that the killing of animals is so dire that drastic action is needed to stop it.

Sawhney has been arrested three times and faces eight felony charges, seven of which stem from protests against poultry and egg farmers in Petaluma in September 2018. She and other DxE members chained themselves together outside Petaluma Poultry, an organic poultry production center in Sonoma County that supplies Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon. The DxE activists “rescued” or “stole” nine birds, depending on who is doing the wording. Sawhney and 58 other activists spent 12 hours in jail. Sawhney has pleaded not guilty.

“I accepted the fact that I was probably going to be arrested but I found it worth it,” Sawhney said in a recent interview. “There’s fear. But courage is all about feeling fear and accepting it. I’m very claustrophobic and I don’t like being in jail, but that’s one of the things I am trying to overcome because for the animals it’s important for me to do civil disobedience.”


An affinity with animals from an early age

Helping animals has been a lifelong quest for Sawhney, who was born in Punjab, India. From an early age, she felt a connection to animals, so strong that sight of stray dogs – common in Punjab – led her to early depression and suicidal thoughts. She told her mother she didn’t understand the point of living in a society that is capable of treating other species with such cruelty.

In 2001, her family moved to the United States. In the aftermath of 9/11, classmates bullied her because she looked different, like, “the enemy” or a “terrorist,” she said.

“When I heard those things, I wished someone would have come to speak up for me and no one did and it clicked to me that that’s how animals feel on a completely different scale,” said Sawhney. “I promised myself that I wanted to be that person who stands up for animals. I don’t want to see someone getting bullied, tortured, discriminated against in front of me. I don’t want to be silent.”

Eighteen years later, not much has changed. “It’s funny because a lot of people that hate animal rights activists still call me a terrorist and that I look like the enemy.”


Sawhney went to San Francisco State, where she studied communications. In 2013, after meeting Wayne Hsiung, a former corporate lawyer and professor, she joined forces with him to co-found DxE. Since then, the animal rights organization has added chapters in Mexico, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Romania, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. Its largest chapter is in the Bay Area.

DxE motto: “It’s not food, it’s violence.”

The organization’s motto is, “It’s not food it’s violence.” DxE’s goal is to codify animal rights and species equality through national legislation or constitutional amendment by 2055.

DxE uses dramatic tactics to call attention to animal rights. In 2016, about ten members walked into the downtown dining room of Chez Panisse. They carried flowers and one member launched into a speech about how billions of animals are exploited and treated cruelly each year. In 2017, its members protested — sometimes half-naked and covered in fake blood — outside The Local Butcher Shop in North Berkeley while butchery classes were in session. The group promised to stop if the butcher hung a sign on its window for a year reading, “Attention: Animals’ lives are their right. Killing them is violent and unjust, no matter how it’s done.” The owners said they capitulated to what they termed extortion. The organization also has mobilized hundreds of people to protest in front of stores and farms around northern California.

In 2017, DxE filed a lawsuit against Diestel Turkey Ranch, which supplies turkey to Whole Foods and other markets, alleging false advertising. The trial is currently going on in Alameda County Superior Court. DxE claimed that Diestel was “falsely” and “misleadingly” suggesting that its turkeys were ‘thoughtfully raised,” according to the lawsuit. DxE said the company was telling consumers that animals were kept in humane conditions when they were not. In fact, many turkeys were living in overcrowded barns where they were packed in so tightly that they sat on piles of feces, were covered with feces, could barely breathe, and were so stressed by overcrowding that they pecked one another’s feathers and eyes, according to the lawsuit.

Jason Diestel, the farm’s vice president of operations, disputed that characterization on the witness stand Monday. He said Diestel Ranch pursues a holistic approach in which “air quality, water quality, comfortable temperature, and sustainable microbial management” are closely managed. Turkeys are held in spaces with ventilation, light, and doors that have access to the outside when it’s necessary, he said. Turkeys are surveilled day and night.

While neither Diestel or the company’s attorneys would comment during the lawsuit, a company newsletter said questioned DxE’s motives: “None of our packaging labels claim that the birds are ‘free-range’ or ‘humane. …  It is important to understand that the mission of animal activist groups like DxE is not farm animal welfare, but a total end to animal agriculture and meat consumption. While DxE will never support turkey farming, for those that do, Diestel strives to be a choice that our customers can feel proud to stand behind.” The letter also disputed that Diestel’s turkeys were raised in bad conditions.

DxE Activists outside the Whole Foods on Telegraph in Sept. 2018. Photo: DxE

A focus on Whole Foods and Amazon

But the main focus of DxE in recent years has been on Whole Foods, the grocery store chain that trumpets its focus on organics, sustainability and selling humanely raised meat and fish. DxE activists have been “investigating factory farm suppliers to Whole Foods” and their “criminal animal cruelty” since 2014, according to a DxE press release. In 2017, after Amazon purchased the chain, DxE activists extended their protests to the internet giant.

Members of DxE climbed into Petaluma Poultry, an egg supplier to Whole Foods, in 2018 to video the living conditions of hens. They examined the “free-range” lives of chickens at Pittman Family Farms, as well as at Weber Family Farms and McCoy Poultry Services. They set up #OccupyWholeFoods week and performed “die-ins” at the store on Telegraph Avenue and in Oakland and San Francisco

“We have saved hundreds of animals from nightmarish violence and told their stories to the world,” Hsiung wrote on a blog post on DxE’s website.

The protests grew so noticeable and frequent that Whole Foods obtained a restraining order in 2018 prohibiting DxE members from protesting outside five Bay Area stores. Attorneys for the chain now want that restraining order applied to all Whole Foods’ locations.

“DxE members have repeatedly entered our stores and property to conduct demonstrations that disrupt customers and team members by blocking access to our aisles, departments, and cash registers, interfering with our business and putting the safety of both customers and team members at risk,” Whole Foods spokesperson Betsy Harden said in a statement to The Guardian in October 2018.

Sawhney was first arrested in October 2018 when she took a calf from Ray-Mar- Ranches, a farm in Oakdale that provides beef to Costco and In-N-Out Burgers. Sawhney and other DxE members entered the farm without permission and discovered a pile of dead cows. When they realized one calf was still moving, they carried it out, intent on rescuing it, she said. A sheriff’s deputy caught them before they could escape. Sawhney was charged with grand theft and misdemeanor trespassing.

She was also one of the 58 activists arrested and charged with taking nine birds from Petaluma Poultry, the farm in Sonoma County that used to provide Amazon the brand “Rosie Original Whole Chicken.” She faces charges of felony conspiracy, felony burglary and misdemeanor trespass.

But the arrests have not daunted Sawhney. They have empowered her, she said.

When Amazon held a conference in Las Vegas on June 6th, Sawhney bypassed 10 security checkpoints to interrupt CEO Jeff Bezos.

“I have been inside Amazon Chicken Farms where animals are criminally abused and I’m asking you today if…,”  Sawhney began. Five security guards leaped on stage to grab the microphone as she continued: “Jeff, please. You’re the richest man on the planet. You can help the animals. ” That time, she spent three days in jail.

people with Amazon boxes over their heads at UC Berkeley
Activists in “Amazon Creeper” costumes at the UC Berkeley Amazon store in 2018. Photo: DxE
Four DxE activists charged in Sonoma County: Cassie King, Priya Sawhney, Almira Tanner, and Wayne Hsiung. Photo: DxE

Berkeley City Council passes a resolution supporting DxE activists

On Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council passed a resolution asking the Sonoma County District Attorney to exercise leniency in prosecuting 21 defendants who took animals from farms. They include Berkeley residents Sawhney, Hsiung, Cassie King, Jonathan Frohnmayer, and Almira Tanner, among others.

“The Berkeley City Council holds that the 21 individuals being prosecuted in Sonoma County were acting under Penal Code 597e to provide domestic animals sufficient food and water ….and attempting to expose abuses of nonhuman animals in commercial animal operations,” the resolution read.

Group organizes to get fur banned in Berkeley and California

Getting the fur ban passed was less controversial but still involved years of education, protesting and lobbying. DxE worked on a law banning it in Berkeley and San Francisco starting in 2016.

The Berkeley City Council voted to ban the sale of fur in March 2017. City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn successfully introduced an amendment to exempt sheepskin and lambskin. No one from the public opposed the law.

“A line that has been drawn there,” said Hahn “Leather is allowed, meat is allowed. I would like to move that line a little bit over and I would like to take cowhide with hair and sheep and lambskin with fleece out of the definition of fur. We can always add it later.”

Councilwoman Cheryl Davila agreed. “The fleece on lambs is important for me, especially because when my children were young that was the blanket that we used in our stroller. And I know that the item is something that is sold and is often used for babies,” said Davila.

Hahn’s motion was approved. “We already raise and use these animals for food so using their hides productively is less wasteful,” Hahn told Berkeleyside. “These animals are not raised for their fur.”

The state law, AB 44, states that it is a crime to “sell, offer for sale, display for sale, trade, or otherwise distribute for monetary or nonmonetary consideration a fur product.” That includes animal skin or parts of it, like hair, fleece, or fur fibers. Fur products include clothes and accessories such as handbags, shoes, hats, earmuffs, scarves gloves, jewelry, keychains, toys or home accessories. It excludes cowhide, sheepskin, goatskin, deerskin and animal skin that will be converted into leather.

To advocate for AB 44, DxE members traveled to Sacramento to participate in public hearings, mobilize protesters, and encourage the public to call senators to vote in favor of the ban. Sawhney helped the group with live-streaming public events, promoting fundraising campaigns and outreach.

“It is a huge victory because fur is just a dying industry and it’s good to see entire California public support this fur ban,” said Sawhney. “But also, it is a symbolic victory because it is just the first step in taking down the pillars of animal agriculture, not only in California but around the world”.

The fur industry fought back against the ban, including by clandestinely paying students and individuals to show up at state Senate hearings to denounce the proposed law, according to an investigation by The Intercept. In one case, the Fur Information Council of America, a trade group that promotes manufacturing sectors of the U.S. fur industry, paid $7,000 to a man named Matt Gray to say he came from the group Cal Small Biz and Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety and objected to the ban, according to The Intercept. DxE did its own investigation and alleged that a libertarian group,  Mobilize the Message, paid students $170 to oppose the fur ban, call legislators, and distribute literature The Intercept also published that contract,

DxE members handled printed copies of the story to legislators. According to Sawhney, this was one of the actions that convinced legislators to support the fur ban.

Even though the ban of fur has been codified into law, Sawhney’s work continues. She works full time as an activist, receives a stipend from the organization and lives in a DxE activist house on Claremont Avenue with other members.

DxE is funded through individual donations, according to Matt Johnson, a DxE press coordinator. Many of them are monthly donors who donate $45 and others are one-time contributors who donate to specific campaigns, such as a November action to “rescue” 20 turkeys from central Utah. For #GivingTuesday, a movement that promotes people to donate to organization DxE surpassed its $50,000 goal, said Johnson. The attorneys representing Sawhney and others are donating their time.

“One of the most amazing things about Priya is her resilience,” said King, a DxE leader and fellow defendant facing charges in Sonoma County. “A lot of things we work on are not as successful. We see the ups and downs of a movement that goes through many stages. Sometimes we rescue animals, but sometimes we see dead animals inside of farms. Priya has a really emotional connection to animals but she also stays resilient and stays strong whatever comes her way.”

This article was updated after publication to use the amended resolution adopted by the Berkeley City Council.