Militant Activism and the Issue of Animal Rights
Behind the actions of animal rights activists over the past decade—notably in the UK and the USA—lie a number of troublesome issues. In some quarters, sympathy for their cause has obscured an astonishing amount of physical damage done to retail outlets, laboratories and clinics; and several people have come perilously close to being killed in poisonings, bombings and arson attempts. Overall, a growing militancy characterizes the actions of several animal rights groups, an issue explored in this Commentary by Dr. G.D. (Tim) Smith, a Strategic Analyst in the Analysis and Production Branch of CSIS.
Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author’s views.
Three days into 1992, media reports of poisoned candy bars in Edmonton and Calgary interrupted pleasant holiday thoughts and revived lingering headaches. A previously unknown group calling itself the Animal Rights Militia (ARM) claimed to have injected 87 Cold Buster bars with oven cleaner—an action taken because of alleged animal abuse in the development of the product. The bar’s designer, a physiologist at the University of Calgary, denied the allegations.
One bar tested by police contained an alkaline substance “which could cause burning if eaten”. The distributor of the Cold Buster immediately recalled tens of thousands of the bars from some 250 outlets in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and the manufacturer halted production, forcing the temporary lay-off of 22 employees.
Ten days later, a second letter from ARM arrived at the offices of the The Edmonton Journal, confirming the contamination claim as a hoax. “The purpose behind (the) hoax was to cause economic damage to (the inventor), his co-financiers and those with a stake in the success of the Cold Buster Bar.” The letter warned of further action by ARM, however, if animal exploitation continued, and threatened that “the next time action is taken, it will not be a hoax”.
Direct action associated with the issue of animal welfare is not a new experience for Canadians. The controversial efforts of Greenpeace to halt the slaughter of baby Harp seals, for example, received wide public attention. But a gradual trend toward militant activism in support of animal rights has become increasingly evident in recent years, albeit more so in Great Britain and the USA than in Canada. It is a progression which is troubling.
During the past decade approximately 40 incidents of vandalism, arson and breaking-and-entering in Canada have been attributed to an organization known as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). An off-shoot of a British-based group of the same name, the ALF emerged in Canada in 1981 and began to undertake activities similar to those of its United Kingdom counterpart. Largely targeting furriers by means of protest demonstrations, activists also painted graffiti on buildings, poured glue in door-locks and smashed windows. The same tactics were used against meat and fish shops, although eventually in a more violent manner:
* on 24 April 1989, two meat markets in Vancouver were destroyed by arson attacks to mark “World Laboratory Animals Day”;
* damage estimated at $46,000 resulted from an arson attack against a fish company in Edmonton on 17 December 1991. Ironically, the fire killed several live lobsters and crabs.
Both events were claimed by the ALF—in the first instance, by means of a telephone call; in the second, by spray-painting the words ‘ALF’ on the walls of the fish company.
Furriers, meat and fish shops have not been the only targets of animal rights militants. Research laboratories, medical and veterinary schools and clinics have been vandalized as well. Activists have broken into research labs and removed animals used for experimental purposes, and have sent hate mail to the scientists involved. While an estimated 350 to 400 groups in Canada are involved with protecting animals, the ALF appears the most radical of those concerned with animal rights.
The original ALF was formed in England in 1976, a splinter group of the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) who regarded the HSA as not sufficiently militant. Since its inception, the ALF has gained a fearsome reputation in the United Kingdom—even to the extent of attempted murder: during 1990, two British scientists narrowly escaped death in the explosions of bombs attached to their cars. In the second attack, a 13-month-old baby in a nearby carriage was injured.
The ALF’s reputation was established through a 10-year campaign of destruction. Raids on laboratories and kennels, involving damage to facilities and the release of animals, coupled with spray-paint attacks on vehicles and the interiors and exteriors of buildings, were typical of the attacks. Scientists and their families were subjected to abusive telephone calls, their cars were doused with paint stripper, and leaflets were distributed at schools attended by their children. In January 1981, the ALF estimated that the group had caused more than $2 million damage over the previous four years of its existence.
Perhaps the busiest year of all for the ALF in Great Britain was 1984. Beginning with raids on mink farms and scientific laboratories, the ALF subjected a Home Office Under-Secretary (responsible for animal welfare legislation) to obscene telephone calls—including a threat to his life—and $2,000 damage to his house. The most spectacular event occurred in November when a rat poison threat was made against the popular Mars chocolate bars. Millions of the bars were withdrawn and checked after notes were found inside candy wrappers in six English towns.
The ALF continued its campaign of vandalism and violence through 1987, when a string of firebomb attacks on department stores, including Harrods of London, eventually led to the arrest, conviction and incarceration of large portion of its militant leadership.
But the ALF managed to resurface in England with a vengeance in 1991. During the first six months of the year it launched almost daily attacks on butchers, meat processors, druggists, laboratories and other businesses in the Greater Manchester area. More than 1,000 shop windows were broken. ALF activists boasted they could “cause $60,000 damage in one week just from smashing windows.” Nearly $50,000 damage was done at a meat processing plant when incendiary devices were put in the cabs of three delivery trucks.
A particularly dangerous and expensive incident occurred in November 1991, when ALF members were responsible for a threat to contaminate the popular drink Lucozade. Responding to police warnings, the manufacturer ordered more than five million bottles of the drink withdrawn from stores. The final cost has not been determined, but could run to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The ALF’s first recognized appearance in the United States took place in 1982; since that time the group is believed to have been responsible for more than 100 criminal acts related to its cause. Akin to activities in the United Kingdom and Canada, the American ALF has attacked medical and scientific research laboratories, butcher shops and retail furriers. The organization has claimed credit for the theft of research animals and the destruction of research equipment and records, as well as acts of vandalism and arson.
Three incidents involving ALF activism have been classified by the FBI as acts of domestic terrorism:
* a multi-million dollar arson at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, University of California at Davis, and damage to 17 nearby vehicles, on 16 April 1987;
* arson and theft of animals at the Pharmacy Microbiology Building and the Office of the Division of Animal Resources, University of Arizona, Tucson, April 1989; and
* vandalism and theft at the Health Sciences Centre, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, in July 1989.
A recent news magazine article reported an estimated 7,000 animal rights groups in the USA. Only a handful have demonstrated the ALF’s tendency toward militant activism; however, among them is a group known as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA members frequently engage in animal rights protests and demonstrations, as well as actively publicizing the work of the ALF. Earth First!, an organization principally concerned with ecological issues, has also been associated with the ALF. In one incident in California in 1989, ALF and Earth First! members reportedly burned a livestock auction facility, causing some $350,000 damage.
Positive support for the well-being of animals is not novel in Canada or elsewhere in the world. The prestige and influence of the 156-year-old Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the United Kingdom, and its sister organizations in many nations (including Canada and the USA), amply testify to that fact. What is different is the rise of violent militancy evident over the past decade.
To date the militants have managed to avoid causing serious injury to persons, although they have come perilously close on occasion. Of considerable worry, however, is the apparent willingness to expand the limits of extremist behaviour. Granted, the outrages bring media attention and probably encourage some recruiting, as well as some support from like-minded radicals. But a critical reality is that frustration evoked by perceived public apathy or revulsion could prompt the more extremist fringe to opt for a campaign of spectacular excesses—attacks and raids that could spell tragedy in terms of human lives.
Animal welfare is a popular cause; few would appear so heartless, inhumane, or indifferent as to fail to espouse its general aims. For that reason there exists supportive consensus in many communities. Animal welfare has voter appeal, and currently a certain ‘chic’ atmosphere surrounds the movement, promising an exciting outlet for the trendy types bored with their tame lifestyle. In North America and the United Kingdom most militant members of the ALF are young and from middle-class backgrounds.
But the movement also provides an avenue for militant extremists whose agenda exceeds that of the innocent cause they have allegedly espoused. Clothed securely in the guise of a popular issue such as animal rights, they are able to pursue their radical ideals surreptitiously and with impunity. The ALF, for example, was founded by Ronnie Lee—a declared anarchist who is still active in the organization. Many of the supporters of the ALF in Canada are also known to have extreme left-wing or anarchist views.
Without exaggerating the significance of increasing militant activism, the evidence should be regarded seriously. A well-informed public, apprised of what the activism represents and of the dangers of an incautious reaction, is one means by which a necessary calm, reasoned response may be achieved.
It would be nonsense to suppose that the animal rights movement could seriously jeopardize the political, social or economic fabric of Canada, the United Kingdom or the USA. But the issue has high emotive potential, raising fundamental concerns in relation to economic well-being and the livelihood of numerous individuals. Animal rights protests have contributed to a serious slump in the fur industry in North America and overseas. The end of seal hunting on the east coast of Canada is believed to have contributed to the marked reduction of cod stocks, with disastrous consequences for the fishing industry. It is now becoming evident that the militancy of the activists is beginning to initiate a backlash.
Caution will be needed to avoid overreaction, and vigilance will be necessary to prevent the law being taken into the hands of those not authorized to maintain it. A properly balanced response can be achieved, however, by ensuring that the public, all levels of government, and the security authorities are kept aware and well-informed. Acts of vandalism, of whatever nature, must be clearly shown for what they represent—an affront to democratic principles and the rule of law.
The views expressed herein are those of the author, who may be contacted by writing to :
Postal Station T
Ottawa, Ontario K1G 4G4
FAX: (613) 842-1312