COMMENTARY: Letter from the Sonoma County Jail – The Transformative Power of Suffering

Wayne Hsiung being immediately taken into custody after the verdict

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lawyer Wayne Hsiung was found guilty and immediately cuffed and jailed in Sonoma County Jail (just north of San Francisco) Nov. 2 after a nearly two-month trial and six days of jury deliberation to await sentencing Nov. 30. Like many incarcerated, he was sent to jail with no bail.

Hsiung was found guilty of felony conspiracy and misdemeanor trespass charges for his involvement in nonviolent mass actions where injured animals were openly rescued from factory farms in Sonoma County. 

Hsiung is a co-founder of the international animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), which is leading a campaign to enshrine the legal “Right to Rescue” sick and injured animals from commercial operations. Hsiung’s conviction follows two groundbreaking acquittals in other open rescue cases.

The account below was penned by Hsiung as he awaits his sentencing fate, and finds himself – and the other incarcerated – caged.

By Wayne Hsiung

Being close to suffering changes us. I saw this from the moment I first walked into a slaughterhouse 16 years ago. A little lamb looked up at me from her pen. She was shaking and said to me with her eyes, “I’m scared. I don’t want to die.” As I watched her, the world suddenly became very dark.

My new life as a convict has begun, and I am near suffering again. This time it is me in a cage. 

Surrounding me are people in their worst moments of life. There is a young man, smashing his hands and feet against the tall walls, as he screams for help from some unknown terror. There is a middle-aged person, muttering in Spanish, as he leans over and digs his head into his hands. (In three hours, he has not bothered to look up.) 

And there’s a red-headed teenager, with bloodshot eyes and face, who looks as if he will break down in tears. (He cannot be much older than 18.) The world has, once again, become very dark. 

For the indefinite future, I’ll have to accept that change. 

But there is another change that comes from being close to suffering. Wherever there is suffering, there is also light. I saw that in the little lamb’s eyes 16 years ago. Even as she scrambled away in terror, she showed me her desperation, her hope, her willingness to fight. 

And I see it in the inmates in this Sonoma County jail. The world has forgotten them. But they still fight. Scrounging together funds for bail. Piecing together a legal defense. Doing whatever it takes to be free.

The desperation of suffering casts a great shadow. It is the nightmare of every sentient being. But the struggle against suffering creates a light greater than the shadow. Indeed, that light is piercing and powerful precisely because it’s born from the dark. For 16 years, I have tried to come closer to suffering. I have seen things that no one should have to see. 

But there is a difference between seeing and being. To be truly transformed, I cannot just be near suffering. I must be suffering. I cannot just observe suffering. I must experience it. It is the only path to true understanding, wisdom, and change.

There is a theory in cognitive science that all human thought comes from metaphor. According to the theory, our minds are unable to understand anything beyond our own experiences. All other thoughts and feelings are just comparisons — metaphorical replications — for something we’ve personally experienced.

I think this theory goes too far — humans can think about abstractions, such as math, that have no connection to any experience — but it still captures essential truths. Part of the reason I don’t just know, but feel and understand the plight of animals, is that I have been trapped and terrorized myself.

As a child, I was bullied so mercilessly that I sometimes shook in fear before stepping onto the school bus. I withheld from my family, for years, the cause of the scratches and bruises on my body and face. 

But because of these experiences, I could be transported in an instant to the suffering of animals. I felt it. And that metaphorical connection was a source of not just fear, but motivation and fight. I know the terror of confinement — and the liberation of being back with the people I loved. For that reason, my childhood torment was a gift. It gave me wisdom that I otherwise would have lacked.

Yet, that childhood suffering pales in comparison to the torment inflicted on animals today. The violence I faced was intense but brief. It did not leave me physically broken or disfigured (other than a faint scar on my left lip.) I had a caring family to come home to. A best friend, a lab mutt named Vivian, who loved me more than I thought it was possible to love.

The animals facing systemic abuse have no such comforts. They suffer alone, in the dark, where no one will hear their cries. And, as the brilliant writer Andy Greenberg once put it, this is the dominant experience on Earth today: “The average experience of a sentient being on this planet is the life of a factory-farmed animal in a cage.” 

I have suffered in life. But I don’t truly understand this experience. I was not torn from my mother’s arms as a child. I was not forced to fight for food and water and watch as those around me were cannibalized. And I was not trapped in a cage and denied the freedom that is the birthright of every sentient being.

Until now. The coming weeks, months, or years will bring me closer to suffering — to the dominant experience on Earth today — than I’ve ever been before. I can already see that this will change me. 

The petty resentments and frustrations I felt, just days ago, are gone. They have been consumed by the darkness of this place. But in suffering, there is both darkness and light. Every sentient being yearns to be free. I can see that — feel that — because of the light cast by my own captivity. This is the fight of my life. 

But it has always been the fight of their lives, too. I will soon come closer to that wisdom and truly understand: The dominant experience on Earth is that of an animal in a cage, and it’s time for that to change.

Note: Wayne’s notes on his cell:

  • Est. 50 sq. ft. (3-4x more than a mother pig in a crate), allowed to leave 30 mins per day to shower or make calls -> At other times, I am in this cell w/ my fruit fly friends, small 4’x8” window w/ thick translucent glass, collection of ~50 books I can borrow during breaks, I made friends w/ two small fruit flies

Wayne’s drawing of his cell. A bed, desk, toilet, and sink.

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