n case you hadn’t heard, FBI Deputy Assistant Director John Lewis has
identified the number one domestic terrorist threat to the U.S. and it’s
not radical Muslims. Or right-wing paramilitary types. Or gun-toting pro-lifers.
Nope, guess again. It’s animal rights and environmental activists who have
never hurt or killed a single person in the U.S. in their 25-year history.
What they have done is cause millions of dollars in damages and even more
in lost profits to the logging, construction, SUV, pharmaceutical, and
fur industries—all of which (with the exception of the fur industry) are
major lobbying powers in Congress.
Among the many opportunistic post-9/11 agendas pursued by the outgoing
Republican majority is a drastic increase in funds, per- sonnel, and judicial
leeway granted to law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the Joint Terrorism
Task Force (JTTF) for pursuing grassroots animal rights activists. Some
cases in point: in 2002, over 100 FBI agents investigated a single animal
rights group, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA (SHAC-USA). PATRIOT Act-
sanctioned wiretaps of phones and emails of animal activists have become
commonplace, as have airport detentions on both domestic and international
flights for members of non-profits like Hugs For Puppies and Student Organization
for Animal Rights chapters. FBI employees and FBI-backed investigators
have engaged in romantic and sexual relationships with activists to try
to pry information out of them. Raids on the homes of activists by armed
JTTF agents are also a regular occurrence. In November 2006 seven individuals
in Santa Monica, California had their homes ransacked by government agents
for the “crime” of attending a peaceful demonstration against the POM Juice
Company, which funds animal tests. One of these individuals was former
child star Pam Ferdin, the voice of Lucy in the classic Peanuts television
show. Lucy getting her house raided by the JTTF? It’s enough to make even
But not enough, apparently, for the federal government. In a much-touted
case, six volunteers with SHAC-USA were each sentenced in September 2006
to up to six years in federal prison for operating a website and newsletter
and organizing protests at the homes of pharmaceutical executives. On November
27, 2006 President Bush signed into law the Animal Enterprise Terrorism
Act (AETA), a bill which labels as terrorists those who engage in sit-ins,
civil disobedience, trespass, or any other crime in the name of animal
To be clear, this bill is not aimed at squeaky clean groups like the Humane
Society or even at the controversial People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals (PETA)— both of which have the financial and legal resources to
take on spurious charges. AETA, and the corresponding crackdown, is aimed
at grassroots animal activists who lend their weekends and occasional evenings
towards speaking out against cruelty to animals. Most have little money,
no legal experience, and often belong to informal volunteer organizations.
The nature of the Bush administration’s war on grassroots animal activists
bears similarities to that of the war in Iraq. The first is the use of
loaded language and fear- mongering to create an easy to loathe enemy.
Iraq was part of an “axis of evil” and supposedly had weapons of mass destruction
it planned to use against the U.S. Animal activists are “domestic terrorists”
out to end scientific research and attack anyone with a piece of meat on
their plate. Second is the violation of the civil liberties of a now-marginalized
group. Third, the war against this perceived terror threat is being waged
even though a majority of Americans don’t see a need for it and don’t want
to pay for it. Ask a dozen people on the street to list their top ten safety
concerns and you can be sure “animal rights activists” won’t be making
it onto any of those lists. They probably wouldn’t even crack the top 100.
The final similarity is that the bottom line is corporate profit. The industries
targeted by animal activists are wealthy, influential, and, apparently,
very vulnerable. Take, for instance, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a
major contract animal testing laboratory based in New Jersey and targeted
by animal rights groups like SHAC USA after undercover exposes showed a
worker punching four-month-old puppies in the face. Focused protest pressure
in the U.S. and abroad has left HLS $100 million in debt, kicked off of
every stock exchange in the world, and forced to sell all of its property
just to stay afloat. Major pharmaceutical companies like Roche, Johnson
& Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, and others have been targeted by activists
for contracting experiments at Hunting- don; many have responded by cutting
their financial support for HLS.
International protest in the UK against Huntingdon Life Sciences
—photo from www.indymedia.org.uk
In light of such activist success, it is no wonder the pharmaceutical industry—like
the logging, construction, and auto industries—is clamoring for activists
to be stopped. Given their lobbying muscle, it is also no surprise that
they have been able to push through prosecutions and legislation that civil
liberties groups find draconian and unconstitutional. Yet for all the resources
poured into this domestic “war on terrorism” and for all its infringement
on the civil liberties of law-abiding animal advocates, does the Bush administration
at least have tangible success to point to in an attempt to justify its
actions? As in Iraq, the answer is an unequivocal no.
Grassroots animal activists, though angered and sometimes scared by the
increasing government attention to their movement, have nonetheless carried
on as before. Groups like the Animal Liberation Front, which engage in
illegal direct action by freeing animals or destroying the property of
company executives, have, if anything, been inspired to heightened activity
by the government’s actions. The year following the indictment of the SHAC
USA defendants saw more illegal actions directed against Huntingdon than
in any previous year. Just days after the defendants were sentenced in
September 2006, ALF members broke into an animal testing lab in Massachusetts
and rescued two dozen rabbits. In the weeks after AETA was signed into
law, animal activists seem to have intensified grassroots activity as four
separate actions, hundreds of freed animals, and hundreds of thousands
of dollars in damages were claimed by anonymous activists.
Still, the breadth of the animal rights underground should not be overstated.
The number of illegal actions claimed each year numbers in the dozens,
not the hundreds or thousands. And (this bears repeating) no one has ever
gotten hurt. Economic damage has been done, but even the most committed
activists don’t come close to the financial thievery perpetrated by the
companies they target. GlaxoSmith- Kline, for example, bilked the U.S.
public out of $7 billion in taxes by under-reporting its profits, according
to the IRS. Their punishment? In September they struck a deal to pay $3
billion, or less than half of what they actually owed. In one year this
company has done 50 times more economic damage than animal rights activists
have done in the past 25 years.
s in Iraq, the best solution would be to increase the power that the public
has to affect issues that concern them—even if that causes financial setbacks
for big corporations. After all, isn’t that what democracy is all about?
Yet in the U.S., where 86 percent of the public finds the conditions egg-laying
hens are kept in to be unacceptable, any bill to end such practices would
be summarily shot down by the agriculture lobby—if it was even lucky enough
to get introduced. It is no wonder, then, that in the last year activists
have repeatedly broken into chicken, turkey, and egg farms to free animals
or collect video documentation of conditions.
Animal activists—perhaps more committed, focused, and willing to sacrifice
for their cause than any other grassroots social justice movement today
in the U.S.—are not going away. The Bush administration’s response to their
issues has been as much a farce and a failure as it has been in the Middle
Nick Cooney is the director of Hugs For Puppies, a non-profit animal advocacy
organization in Philadelphia. His writing has been featured in the
and on PBS television.