Playing chicken

Activists use protests and a lawsuit to push for better regulation of live poultry sales

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Unlike this chicken, most of the live chickens sold at Heart of the City farmers market have had their beaks cut off

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The Heart of the City farmers market in U.N. Plaza may not exude the bourgeois foodie reputation of the Ferry Plaza farmers market. It doesn't sell micro-roasted coffee or artisan cheeses, and its fountain may sometimes double as a public shower, but it does offer one product that no other San Francisco farmers market does: fresh, live poultry.

Raymond Young has sold live chickens here for two decades, showing up at dawn to set up shop and peddle his poultry to an eager throng of customers, mostly Chinese, who happily take home upwards of 600 birds per day.

But a group of animal rights activists is saying that the poultry stand is inhumane, violates health codes, and that Young's employees have infringed on their civil rights as protestors. Since April 2010, members of LGBT Compassion have been showing up in the wee hours of the morning next to Young's stand with banners, brochures, and signs promulgating the alleged cruelty of his business and seeking to block the sale of live birds. In January, protesters upped the ante when they slapped Young and the HOC market with a lawsuit alleging continuous abuse and negligence by those who supervise the market.

"For me, it was as simple as seeing the animal cruelty," said Andrew Zollman, 43, the founder and organizer of LGBT Compassion. "The cages are dilapidated and cramped, there are feces everywhere, and the chickens are shoved in plastic bags, two at a time, while they scream in fear or pain. It was like walking down the street and seeing a dog beaten — and it's really frustrating to see it happen here in San Francisco."

Zollman and fellow protester Alex Felsinger, 25, filed the lawsuit with San Francisco attorney Matt Gonzalez after months of attempts to get city officials to intervene.

The allegations have Young and market management squawking, saying that the activists are opposing a practice that is both legal and routine. They claim the protesters are overly sensitive to the treatment of the chickens simply because they can see it, and decry their tactics as an attack on a small business and cultural traditions since almost all of his customers are Asian.

"These people just don't seem to like other people's culture of selling live chicken," Young said. ""I think that what I do is right. I abide by all the health codes and animal care codes. I try to do everything I can to satisfy everyone. These protesters think they can override the law because they don't like what they see."

 

THE PATH TO COURT

Zollman and Felsinger have been encouraging the city to investigate Young's stall, regularly sending videos and photos taken at Young's stall to the Department of Public Health and Animal Care and Control. But their quest to protect the chickens has been complicated by the lack of city oversight and an inability to enforce animal cruelty laws due to provisions exempting poultry.

The clash between the vociferous vegans and the poultry purveyors reached its pinnacle in late December 2010, when Felsinger claimed he was punched in the side of the head, wrapped up in a tarp, and had the memory card from his camera stolen by one of Young's employees. As painful as the altercation was, Felsinger's scuffle has helped him garner support.

Felsinger doesn't have footage of the December attack, but he and Zollman have documented several instances of alleged verbal and physical abuse by Young's employees, including anti gay statements from Young's daughter, which was the subject of a complaint to the Human Rights Commission.

"There is a long list of things being done to us over the past year," Felsinger said. "I never expected them to take such a violent act against me. It's not how I wanted to go about it. But it might have the end result we're looking for."

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