By Nick Cooney
In 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, personnel, 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 Snoopy cry.
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 rights.
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.
As 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 East.
Nick Cooney is the director of Hugs For Puppies, a non-profit animal advocacy organization in Philadelphia. His writing has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer and on PBS television.