Before sunrise one day in December, thieves sneaked into Anshu Pathak’s exotic meat farm in Riverside County and pulled off a singular heist.

Someone cut away a section of fence. The evidence, Pathak said, suggests that they backed a trailer into the gap and lured up to 30 llamas and 160 ostriches inside. Also, emus, lambs, goats, alpacas and geese.

Then, they were gone. Animal control officers and sheriff’s deputies wrangled about 50 additional llamas and emus that had spilled into the street. Another emu was found the next day wandering near Highway 74.

Days later, against the backdrop of the snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains, Pathak inspected the hastily patched gash in the barrier surrounding his Perris property. He was upset, sure. Yet he couldn’t help but appreciate the Noah-like coordination it took to make off with such a large menagerie of animals.

“It must be organized, you know,” Pathak said. “They planned it nicely.”

The burglary was weeks in the making, coming after controversy over the 14-acre farm, which animal rights activists allege is keeping livestock in inhumane conditions. Pathak has denied this, and he has the backing of animal control officers who said they visited every day for weeks; each inspection revealed no sign of neglect.

But from the activists’ standpoint, these weren’t thieves who took Pathak’s prized animals. They were liberators.

Animal rights organizations call these operations “open rescues.” They go undercover and shoot video of a location where they believe animals are being neglected or abused before entering the property, en masse.

Such operations have a rich history in California.

In 1985, a group called the Animal Liberation Front broke into scientific laboratories at UC Riverside and took more than 450 animals, including a rare monkey, in what was described at the time as the biggest “rescue” raid of its kind in history.

More recently, six activists with a Berkeley organization called Direct Action Everywhere were charged with felony theft, burglary and conspiracy offenses on allegations of seizing chickens during rescues at farms in Sonoma County in 2018. They have all pleaded not guilty and have preliminary hearings scheduled later this year.

Groups such as Direct Action Everywhere openly publicize their rescues, often livestreaming them on Facebook, and make no effort to conceal participants’ identities.

No one has come forward to claim responsibility for the Dec. 30 break-in at Pathak’s farm. But 10 days before it took place, a Sherman Oaks nonprofit called the Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation issued a call for volunteers via Facebook.