FARMINGTON, Calif. — With only the dim light of a half-moon to guide them, four self-proclaimed "duck freedom fighters" made their way early Wednesday across an abandoned field, around dilapidated, foul-smelling chicken pens, and over a narrow passage through a large manure-filled pond.
After a difficult 1 1/2-mile hike, Bryan Pease, Kath Rodgers, Carla Brauer and a man who refused to identify himself reached the Sonoma Foie Gras duck shed. Soon, four Peking-Muscovy ducks were free.
The group had been eyeing the site for weeks in preparation for this mission, which they hoped would save the lives of a few ducks that were scheduled to be killed to produce foie gras, an expensive culinary delicacy often sold at high-end restaurants.
The participants said the cause is important enough to justify their actions. But Sonoma Foie Gras owner Guillermo Gonzalez, when reached later about the incident, said he was outraged by people trespassing on his property and taking his animals. Although he had not yet noticed the four ducks missing, Gonzalez said charges should be brought if the birds were stolen.
"Unfortunately, some activists hold animals in higher esteem than they do humans," said Gonzalez. "Our animals are treated humanely, and anybody who enters our farm can see that."
To the four activists, animal cruelty is intrinsic to the production of foie gras, which requires ducks to be pneumatically force-fed large amounts of a corn-based meal in order to enlarge their livers. The controversial feeding practice takes place twice a day over the four-week period before a duck is slaughtered.
The group had conducted such operations previously as part of what it calls "the underground railroad for ducks." But this one was a bit more complicated.
The night before, a Bay Area television station had aired portions of a video the four, members of an ad-hoc animal rights group that calls itself the Animal Protection and Rescue League, had shot earlier this year showing conditions at the farm.
"This may not be as easy tonight," said Pease, a veteran of several duck releases, as he crossed through a field in the still night. "After the video, there may be someone there waiting for us."
The video had been released by Gourmet Cruelty, an animal rights group that has launched efforts to ban foie gras production in California. Its graphic footage detailed the living conditions of ducks at Sonoma Foie Gras, one of only two producers of the delicacy in the U.S. and the only one in California.
Sonoma Foie Gras leases sheds and some land here, near Stockton.
Pease, like the others, was wearing disinfected clothes, rubber boots, and surgical masks and gloves in order to prevent the spread of Exotic Newcastle Disease, which has recently killed millions of poultry animals in California.
When he realized that his bolt cutters would not do the job on new locks that had been installed at the shed, he quietly tiptoed around the building, just a few yards from the homes of sleeping Sonoma Foie Gras employees, and found an alternative entry: an unsophisticated air-conditioning system made of porous, accordion-like plastic under a constant shower of water.
"We're not about property destruction," Pease whispered to his companions as he labored to remove the long plastic sheet without causing damage. "We're going to leave this thing just as we found it."
After the plastic was removed, Rodgers, the smallest of the four, squeezed her way into the shed, and let out a mild yelp as her wet skin made contact with electrified chicken wire used to keep rats out of the building. Making her way through the dark, she groped to find a side door to open for her companions to enter.
For 45 minutes, the four surveyed the inside of the large shed, shooting video of the conditions and inspecting each of the 1,500 or so ducks in the building. Then the group chose the four ducks they deemed "in most need," carefully placed them in two large plastic bins they had brought, and made their way back to the Ford van they had rented for the trip.
"These are too heavy," Rodgers said of the 40-pound bins -- each carrying two ducks -- she and a companion carried. As the ducks bumped against the green plastic containers in en effort to get out, Rodgers tried to console them by whispering to them: "We're almost there, little ones."
Sonoma Foie Gras has been in business for nearly 20 years, but it has come under attack recently from animal-rights activists.
In late July, activists vandalized two homes, including one owned by well-known San Francisco chef Laurent Manrique, and caused a flood in a historic 19th-century adobe building in Sonoma.
Manrique is a partner with Sonoma Foie Gras owner Gonzalez in a separate business venture: a bistro that is scheduled to open across from the downtown plaza in Sonoma this fall.
If "ducks were stolen and the thieves are identified," Gonzalez said, he would seek charges against the perpetrators.