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The Fight for the Right to Rescue Starts Now
From Utah to New York, industry forces are targeting sick and injured animals -- and those who give them aid. Here's how the animal rights movement can fight back... and win.
Nearly 20 years ago, Adam Durand was convicted and given a near-maximum sentence (6 months) for openly rescuing animals from an egg factory farm in upstate New York. The conviction and sentence were a shock. Experienced criminal defense lawyers advised Adam that there was no chance he would be charged and convicted; after all, he was exposing the abuses of a corporate giant, Wegmans, that would surely be too ashamed to pursue charges. The birds Adam rescued, moreover, were grotesquely twisted into cage wire; partially buried in filth and feces; and on the brink of death. Even if convicted, sentencing a first-time offender with severe punishment was (and is) unheard of, especially for a crime that caused no financial harm to the “victim.”
Yet that is exactly what happened: Adam received a six-month sentence for taking dying birds to the vet.
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The statement to the animal rights movement was clear: Cross us, and we will go after you. Not with our own lawyers, but with the power of the American government, which so often is controlled by the same corporate titans who abuse animals in factory farms.
“Just as we brutalize the animals, we will brutalize you,” the industry was saying. “Beware.”
And, sadly, the movement heard that warning loud and clear. The prosecution of Adam Durand, along with the convictions of other nonviolent animal rights advocates from the same era, placed a chill on the grassroots movement for animal rights. Journalist Will Potter called it the Green Scare — akin to the Red Scare which terrorized Americans in the 1950s with criminal persecution — and the result was that a powerful grassroots movement that had been growing since the early 2000s was stopped in its tracks.
Today, as I write this blog, the animal rights movement is facing an eerily similar situation. Activists across the globe are being charged and prosecuted, and sometimes convicted, for merely giving aid to sick and dying animals. A woman in upstate New York was charged with felony grand larceny for giving food, water, and shelter to two stray calves who wandered onto her property. Two activists in Vancouver were convicted and sentenced for merely documenting the abuses in a pig farm. And even a prominent Hollywood actor, Alexandra Paul, has been unable to escape the industry’s wrath; she goes to trial with her co-defendant Alicia Santurio in less than a month, on March 7, on theft charges for giving aid to a sick bird on the floor of a slaughter truck. (I will represent Alexandra, who is both a friend and personal hero, at trial in Merced County.)
But, unlike what happened in the early 2000s, the grassroots animal rights movement is not being crushed. To the contrary, we are stronger than we have ever been.
Just in the last few weeks, we have seen two major exposés of animal abuse in the national media (WIRED and the New York Times) triggered by grassroots activism. Another national media report in Vox recently showcased the corruption of the veterinary industry by corporate influences in Big Ag, inspired by the work of a grassroots veterinary organization, Our Honor. And even non-animal rights coverage of factory farming has become more pointed in its criticism, as shown by an op-ed by the Times’ Zeynep Tufekci about how poultry farming could cause a pandemic 50 times as lethal as COVID-19. This is exactly the narrative that grassroots activists have been pushing for the last 3 years. Even in agricultural strongholds like Utah, industry efforts to criminalize aid to “sick” and “injured” animals are facing unprecedented pushback, with a state Senate committee nearly rejecting the bill despite universal industry support.
So what has changed? In a word, the grassroots animal rights movement is ready for the fight.
The grassroots activists of 2023 are not just acutely aware of the efforts to destroy us. We planned for it and have carefully studied how to make repression backfire. (We have a literal manual on exactly this subject.) Indeed, many of the founders of DxE, and other organizations such as the Save Movement, are deeply steeped in a tradition of nonviolent movements that has seen the backlash against activists as crucial to our efforts at social change.
We are students of groundbreaking scholars such as Harvard’s Erica Chenoweth, who made the startling finding that nonviolent movements that mobilize a relatively small % of the population to action — just 3.5% — are almost universally successful. Chenoweth found that even grandmothers and grandchildren will mobilize in support of a movement that faces repression for peaceful activism.
We have been trained by legendary activists such as Dr. Bernard Lafayette, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma and was one of the key nonviolence trainers of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Lafayette joined us at the Animal Liberation Conference in 2018, and gave hundreds of activists the confidence to risk arrest, with his stories from the 1960s.
But perhaps most importantly, we are ready for this fight because we understand that the only way to fight a shadow is with the power of light.
For too long, the animal rights movement has been focused on what happens in the dark. To be sure, showcasing the horror of animal abuse remains an important part of what we do. There are more animals being tortured, as we sit here today, than all the human beings who have lived on this planet in the earth’s history. And the torment they endure is almost unfathomable. Birds in “organic” farms are so crowded, starved, and traumatized they begin eating each other alive. Mother pigs trapped in gestation crates develop psychological pathologies within hours of being confined in tiny cages. And even so-called humane slaughterhouses routinely rip baby cows to pieces alive.
Violence of this nature, and volume, is so vile and disturbing that it is almost certainly the greatest stain on the human conscience in history. It is a dark shadow cast over our entire species, and to this day, that shadow only continues to grow, with new and more insidious ways of exterminating animals seemingly being invented every day.
But successful movements must not relegate themselves to the shadows. Successful movements fight the shadow with the power of light. I mean that in three very important, and distinct, senses.
The first sense is the obvious one: creating transparency. Direct action, such as open rescue, shines light on the abuse. In the context of open rescue, that light is literal, as we move into dark places with our cameras and headlamps. Whether with nonviolent sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement, or mass protests for climate justice, direct action brings attention to an issue that has been ignored.
But transparency alone is not sufficient to create change. Indeed, sometimes, transparency just leads a system of violence to become normalized. And that is why we must understand the second dimension of the power of light: the light of our compassion. The literal light of transparency, after all, cannot create change if we turn away, or ignore what we see. What is required for real change is the light in our hearts: our desire to rescue, and give aid.
Many years ago, my good friend Lauren Gazzola, one of the most thoughtful students of the animal rights movement and a political defendant herself, made an observation that is crucial to all those who seek change. “The only way to denormalize violence is to normalize the challenge to it.” This yearning to aid those who are suffering is a light in each of us, and harnessing that light is one of the only ways to show the world, not only that abuses are happening, but there is a better and brighter path forward.
There is a third and even more important dimension to the light, however, that I have been reflecting on in the last few months. And that is the light inside each of the victims of violence; their unique, beautiful, and even miraculous spirit that, when harnessed, is the most powerful force on earth for animal rights.
Let me explain. In the months before the Smithfield trial, as the judge ruled against us over and over again, I was feeling despondent. I was risking years in prison, which would frustrate my most important personal objectives in life (caring for my elderly family members and someday starting my own family). My cat went blind and became desperately ill, and I was convinced that imprisonment would mean that I’d never see him again. And my lawyers were describing our chances at trial as somewhere between very unlikely to hopeless.
But there was one thing that kept me inspired to fight: the miracle of Lily’s spirit. I was speaking to a good friend and supporter a month before trial when I made this realization. “Just remember where those piglets were,” he said. “And then remember where they are today, and your choice will seem an easy one.” And it worked. Every day, in the weeks before trial, I would stare at an image of Lily, days after her rescue. I would smile at the goofy look on her face, as I tried to dry her after her first bath — her first moment on this planet when she finally got to feel warm, safe, and clean. I would remember the strange idiosyncrasies of her personality — including her bizarre desire to sleep in seemingly the highest and most precarious positions (whether on top of a pile of blankets and piglets, or on top of my face) no matter how comfortable a normal bed might seem. And I began to realize that, when I truly saw Lily for who she was — a unique and beautiful light that had never before existed on the face of the planet Earth — my sacrifices seemed small by comparison. There has only been one Lily in the history of our universe. And she is now safe.
If we came across a living being such as Lily on the moon, we would all marvel at the miracle that is her consciousness and life. The intricate neurochemistry. The robust biological systems, constantly adapting to the struggles around her. And the little personality quirks that make every sentient being in this universe one-of-a-kind. But because this miracle has become so commodified and bureaucratized, not just with the other animals but even with our fellow human beings, we do not honor or stand in awe at the miracle of conscious life.
When we step back and realize how marvelous it truly is — so bright that it’s hard to look at it, when we recognize it — it is the most powerful force for change on this Earth. Because when we see their light, we realize that it must not be extinguished, for the same reason our own light must not be extinguished. Recognition of this light is true kindness at its very core; it is a recognition of the kinship of all living beings. They are not just animals. They are not just our fellow Earthlings. They are our family, as we all share the same light.
The next few months will be crucial, as we fight for kindness and kinship and compassion with the power of light. I’m traveling to Southern California to speak this Saturday at Farm Sanctuary, then on Sunday in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter I’ll be traveling to Merced for some crucial hearings to defend Alexandra and Alicia on Feb 21, then to Arizona to garner support for the right to rescue at conference of the nation’s most prominent leaders in animal law. But my role in this, to be honest, is relatively small. The power of light does not depend on me. It depends on you. On us.
Because only when we all see this power in us — the light within each of us, as activists, but also the light in the living beings we defend, which inspires us — can we cast out the shadow. I hope you’ll join us in doing that. I’ll see you in Merced on March 7.
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