By Jesse Mckinley
FERNDALE, N.Y. — The case of the People of the State of New York against Amber Canavan touches on a variety of issues: animal rights, food culture and tradition, and the advisability of posting online videos of yourself on other people’s property. But at its heart, the central matter in the case — currently percolating in Sullivan County — is this: Did Ms. Canavan steal a pair of ducks?
This much is known: One late night in 2011, Ms. Canavan went to the headquarters of Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, a tiny Catskills town some 100 miles northwest of Manhattan. The company is the nation’s largest producer of fatty duck liver — the aforementioned foie gras — revered as a delicacy by some gourmands.
But foie gras is a controversial dish, considered downright cruel by animal-rights activists who object to the force-feeding of the birds, a process known as gavage, used to enlarge the animal’s liver.
So it was that Ms. Canavan, an animal lover, had gone to Hudson Valley Foie Gras, entered one of the company’s barns and filmed the birds, one of several videos that were spliced together and posted on the website of the Animal Protection and Rescue League.
In an interview, Ms. Canavan said that the doors to the barn were open, and that curiosity about the ducks’ welfare had gotten the best of her.
“I actually grew up with a chicken and some ducks,” she said. “I’ve always had an affinity for birds.”
In addition to the video, Ms. Canavan later submitted an affidavit in a civil suit against Hudson Valley Foie Gras, which helped call attention to her activities and what she saw that night in the barn. “I saw such awful things there, I just felt I needed to tell somebody about it,” she said, in explaining why she filed the affidavit.
Entering without permission, of course, might have gotten Ms. Canavan in some trouble. But the video also seems to show her holding ducks at Hudson Valley, and ducks being placed into a bin. A bin is later seen being carried away. On the animal-rights website, a narrator describes this simultaneously: “The investigators were able to rescue a few ducks” in New York and another California site, the narrator says, showing two birds at an undisclosed location.
But Ms. Canavan’s visit and alleged poaching of ducks galled the management at Hudson Valley Foie Gras, which is on a hillside with visible “Private Property” postings.
“She’s a thief,” said Marcus Henley, the company’s operations manager.
The Sullivan County district attorney, James R. Farrell, seemed to agree, and this month — nearly four years after the episode — Ms. Canavan was indicted on two counts, including burglary in the third degree, a Class-D felony. The felony charge carries the possibility of up to seven years in jail, though nonviolent offenders can get far less jail time or be sentenced to probation.
Mr. Farrell did not return phone calls for comment, but stated in the indictment that Ms. Canavan had entered Hudson Valley Foie Gras “with the intent to steal property and did steal two ducks, while having no permission or authority to do so.”
Hudson Valley Foie Gras has been at the center of several battles in recent years, and claimed a legal victory last month when a federal judge — responding to a suit it helped file — overturned a statewide ban on the rich, creamy dish in California. Mr. Henley said that shipments had since rebounded to California, which accounts for about 20 percent of Hudson Valley’s sales.
He added that what Ms. Canavan had done was “a very standard tactic of animal-rights groups, to break into farms and document their findings,” often with an unfair slant.
In addition to the felony burglary charge, Ms. Canavan is facing a misdemeanor charge of petit larceny of ducks, which sell for about $100 each.
Ms. Canavan, who was arraigned in Sullivan County last week, said she could not comment “about any missing ducks.” But she did say that such an act would be understandable. “Honestly, if they were concerned about losing a few ducks, she said, then “they shouldn’t be treating them so poorly.”
Mr. Henley strongly disputed that characterization, saying his birds — which number more than 100,000 — are cage free and treated humanely.
He added that Hudson Valley had been aggressively working to keep strangers off its property. “It happens every couple of years,” he said.
Mr. Henley said he did not expect Ms. Canavan to be convicted of a felony, though he would support such a finding, in part to discourage others from frightening his ducks and misrepresenting agriculture.
Moreover, Mr. Henley said, there was an easier way to see their operations. “We give tours,” he said. “You don’t need an exposé.”
Some activists have been seeking to make Ms. Canavan — now 29 and an environmental studies student — a cause célèbre, saying she should not be prosecuted for trying to expose another crime: animal cruelty.
“It’s a classic whistle-blower prosecution,” said Bryan Pease, a founder of the Animal Protection and Rescue League in San Diego.
For her part, Ms. Canavan, who attends the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, said she hoped to graduate in May “if they don’t put me in jail.”
But even if that were to occur, she says she feels her trip to the foie gras farm was a good idea.
“I knew I was taking a risk when I spoke up about what I saw,” she said. “And if it provides any relief for the ducks that are still there, it’s going to be worth it.”
Correction: February 22, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the animal-rights organization that posted the video shot at Hudson Valley Foie Gras. It is the Animal Protection and Rescue League, not the Animal Rights and Protection League.