Animal Protection > AR Interviews

August 2, 2005

Speaking for the Animals, or the Terrorists?
By SCOTT SMALLWOOD

Santa Teresa, N.M.

The El Paso, Tex., suburbs stretch west, across the Rio Grande and into New Mexico. Just on the other side of the river lies this community of 2,500 people. In a gated housing development here, not far from a golf course and around the corner from a swimming pool, Steven Best lives alone -- just him and his 10 cats.

He has turned one of his bedrooms into a home office. Tall bookshelves line three walls. Along another, near his computer, are posters of big cats, including a tiger and a mountain lion. Several cat beds sit on the desk.

None of this looks much like a press office for terrorists.

That is what Mr. Best has been accused of running. He is not a cat-loving professor of philosophy, some argue, but a mouthpiece for terrorists who attack university laboratories, factory farms, and pharmaceutical companies.

Mr. Best, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso, is one of the leading scholarly voices on animal rights. In the past year, though, he has taken on a role that, he believes, has gotten him into hot water in Washington and in his own department.

In December he co-founded the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which answers questions and helps disseminate information about actions by the Animal Liberation Front. The animal-liberation group, along with another extremist group called the Earth Liberation Front, has been labeled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as one of the most serious domestic-terrorism threats in the country.

While the groups have not killed anyone, since 1990 they have committed more than 1,200 attacks causing millions of dollars in damages, according to the FBI. Many of them have been attacks against university labs, including a raid on a Louisiana State University building in Baton Rouge in April.

The ALF has no real structure. A few people engage in a "direct action" -- such as destroying computers, setting fire to a building, or "liberating" mink from fur farms -- and then one or two days later they send a communiqué taking credit for the attack.

That's where Mr. Best comes in. The Animal Liberation Press Office has a fax machine in California ready to receive messages from ALF activists. After an attack, Mr. Best and three other press officers post the information on their Web site and answer reporters' questions. "We explain what the ALF is about," he says. "We interpret the nature of an action, and we explain why the action was taken."

Mr. Best balks at being labeled a "spokesman," however. That suggests a centralized organization and a hierarchy the ALF simply does not have, he says. He sees himself as a philosopher in action, a scholar who has the courage to put his theories into practice.

"I'm not in the ALF," he says, standing in his kitchen sipping coffee with soy milk. "If I were, I'd be wearing a mask, and you wouldn't know who I was. You're either above ground or you're underground, or you're a moron looking to get caught."

That may be true, says David Martosko, but it does not clear Mr. Best. Mr. Martosko, research director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that campaigns against the animal-rights movement, argues that groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and press officers like Mr. Best form an above-ground support system for the ALF. Mr. Martosko and other opponents maintain that Mr. Best is a spokesman for terrorists, who should not be able to use his faculty post to indoctrinate his students and offer violent extremists a dash of intellectual legitimacy.

"If a university professor were out there saying that abortion-clinic bombers had a good plan going," he says, "the university would sever the guy's tenure in a New York minute."

Friends and Enemies

In November members of the Animal Liberation Front broke into laboratories used by the University of Iowa's psychology department. They took 88 mice and 313 rats. They destroyed computers and poured acid on papers and equipment, causing about $450,000 worth of damage. In an anonymous message sent after the attacks, the perpetrators wrote: "Let this message be clear to all who victimize the innocent: We're watching. And by ax, drill, or crowbar -- we're coming through your door."

The attacks sparked debate and outrage at Iowa, which was heightened two months later when a law-student group invited Mr. Best to speak at the university. Some psychology professors tried unsuccessfully to get the university's president to cancel the speech. Although the professors managed to retrieve much of their research data from the damaged computers, they were later hit with 400 unsolicited magazine subscriptions after their home addresses were posted by ALF activists.

At the Iowa speech, Mr. Best compared the Animal Liberation Front to 19th-century abolitionists, likening their "direct actions" to the Boston Tea Party. In a statement after the speech, he wrote: "Please, let's stop the hypocrisy and put our moral outrage in perspective. For every window or computer smashed in the name of animal liberation, a billion animals suffer horrendous torture and death at the hands of exploiters operating the fur farms, factory farms, slaughterhouses, rodeos, circuses, and laboratories."

In May Mr. Best's notoriety increased when he was invited to appear at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works about animal- and eco-terrorism. Mr. Best declined, in part because he was scheduled to be out of the country.

But that did not keep his name from being tossed around on Capitol Hill. James M. Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and chairman of the Senate committee, wondered why Mr. Best had been invited to speak at Iowa. "We cannot allow individuals and organizations to, in effect, aid and abet criminal behavior or provide comfort and support to them after the fact," he said at the hearing. "Just as we cannot allow individuals and organizations to surf in between the laws of permissible free speech and speech that incites violence when we know the goal is to inspire people to commit crimes of violence."

At the hearing, Mr. Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom urged Congress to investigate the ties between above-ground groups like PETA, and the ALF itself. The center, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, regularly battles animal-rights activists like PETA and gets its financial support mainly from food and restaurant companies, although it declines to identify them.

During his testimony, Mr. Martosko showed several photographs of Mr. Best. In one, the professor has his arm around Kevin Kjonaas, an activist who faces charges in New Jersey related to a campaign against a British drug-testing company. In another, Mr. Best stands next to Rodney Coronado and Gary Yourofsky, who both did time in prison for animal-liberation attacks.

"These are the guys, these are the ALF felons that Best hangs out with," says Mr. Martosko in a telephone interview. "This is his crowd."

The El Paso professor "may not have his fingerprints on a matchbook," Mr. Martosko continues, "but I think it's clear that he's trying to recruit young people." He points to an essay in which Mr. Best wrote that the movement needed to raise "an army of activists" and that the animal-liberation movement would benefit by "growing roots in academia."

Mr. Best fumes at those allegations. He calls Mr. Martosko a "vulgar McCarthy-ite" who is seeking to demonize the entire animal-rights movement. "I certainly do not recruit students into the ALF," he says. "I don't even know anyone in the ALF."

And he is proud to put his arm around men that some consider terrorists. "They are heroes of mine," he says. "History will be written about them. They will be defamed now, but they will be taught to children later. They will write storybooks about these people, like Harriet Tubman. And I respect them infinitely more than I respect a philosopher lost in abstraction."

No More Burgers

About 25 years ago, Mr. Best sat down in a White Castle restaurant in Chicago for his regular late-night fast-food fix. He had dropped out of high school a few years earlier and was working in factories and driving a truck while dreaming of a career as a jazz guitarist. At 22 he had scrapped the music fantasies and enrolled in a Chicago-area community college. After earning an associate degree in film and theater, he went south to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On this night, at 2 a.m., he was a half-drunk undergraduate in philosophy, stopping for a double cheeseburger.

"I had an epiphany that what I was eating was the blood, the juices, the bones, the tendons, the muscles of an animal," he says. "It repulsed me, and I spit it out." Despite a few more attempts to eat fast-food burgers, he became a vegetarian and later a vegan, shunning all animal products.

At the time he was active in human-rights issues. He even sheltered illegal El Salvadoran refugees for a time. He went on to earn a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin in 1993. That year he started his first and only faculty job, at El Paso.

He has a mop of reddish-brown hair and dresses casually. At 49, he looks youthful despite the few spots of gray in his goatee. He describes himself as a philosophical bachelor who wants to preserve his autonomy by staying away from marriage. Maybe, he says, that's why he gets along with the cats: they all prefer a little isolation. All 10 of them were rescued by Mr. Best -- some caught in alleys, some delivered as tiny kittens in a paper sack. That's how Shag and Willis arrived. They each fit into the palm of his hand and had to be bottle fed. Willis, with his "infinitely deep eyes," still sucks on Mr. Best's finger. Slim Shady, the newest addition, is young and aggressive. Chairman Meow, a longhaired Himalayan, is the loudest and the friendliest around strangers.

When talking about his cats, he does not look like the stubborn philosophy professor whom one colleague at El Paso describes as "very acerbic." Another calls him simply "angry." No one doubts his passion about animals, though.

For him, the campaign for animals' rights is the modern abolition movement. Expanding the notion of rights to include animals -- just as it was expanded in centuries past to include women and blacks -- is the next evolutionary step in man's moral progress, he says. And years from now, Mr. Best argues, people will look back on the way humans currently treat animals the way we now look at slavery.

Most of us focus on the differences between humans and animals, he says, but they are outweighed by the similarities. "We can say that we can build spaceships and they can't," he says. "We can write algebraic equations and they can't. Therefore, we must be better." But that doesn't make any sense to him.

"They know the difference between pleasure and pain," he says of animals. "They can experience a life of happiness and joy or a life of suffering and misery. If they can suffer like us, then they have a right to live a life free of suffering."

For him, and many in the animal-rights movement, the key is sentience. "That's why I'm not engaged in an act of cruelty right now," he says as he stands at his kitchen counter eating a pear. "That's why there is no Pear Liberation Front -- because this does not have a brain, this does not have a nervous system. It cannot feel pain."

In El Paso Mr. Best has his own talk-radio show; he serves as vice president of a local vegetarian group; and he led a lobbying effort to get Sissy the elephant, who had been videotaped being beaten by an El Paso zookeeper, sent to a sanctuary in Tennessee. But Mr. Best staunchly maintains that he has never participated in any ALF action. He says he has never dressed up in black at night and broken into a mink farm or released animals from a university lab. That's not to say that he hasn't been arrested a few times.

In the 1990s, he participated in a PETA campaign against Wendy's restaurants. He walked through a waiting phalanx of police officers to the front of the restaurant, jumped on top of the counter, and loudly declared: "This store is closed for cruelty."

"The point," he says, "was not to have people right then and there stop eating their hamburgers. It was for them to think about the issues." He was taken down, handcuffed, and tossed into jail for the rest of the day. "For me this is philosophy in action. This is taking a stand for what you believe in."

Guilt By Association?

That's just what Rodney Coronado admires in Mr. Best. Mr. Coronado, one of the best-known ALF members, spent nearly five years in prison in the 1990s for an arson at a mink-research laboratory at Michigan State University. Now a regular on the animal-rights speaking circuit, Mr. Coronado says he is no longer a member of the animal-liberation group.

"Steve is true blue," he says. "A lot of professors are just chasing recognition and capitalizing on the latest social movement. He's not like that."

Mr. Best has always supported him and other animal-rights activists, Mr. Coronado says. "He kicks in $100 when we need it, and he always buys guys like me dinner because he knows we're broke."

But that should not make Mr. Best or other academics who support animal rights into de facto members of a terrorist organization, he says. "You can call me whatever you want, but these other people are professors," Mr. Coronado says. "That should be protected, sacred ground."

Nevertheless, having convicted arsonists as friends raises eyebrows. Brian O'Connor is a retired professor of anatomy and cell biology at the Indiana University School of Medicine. He worked with dogs in his research on the nervous system and always feared that he would be the victim of an ALF attack. That never came, but in his retirement he has become an expert on the movement and keeps tabs on developments through his blog, Animal Crackers. He says he agrees with the Center for Consumer Freedom that the best way to stop the ALF and people like Mr. Coronado and Mr. Best "is to attack them and reveal them for what they really are."

He is determined to expose what he believes is the incoherence of the animal-rights argument. Mr. Best is a "total ideologue," he says. "He's being very rational in living the AR philosophy." But that philosophy is flawed, Mr. O'Connor says. "If you honestly believe that each life is of equal value, then my dog's life has the same value as my wife's life."

That would mean, say opponents of Mr. Best like Mr. Martosko, that humans should stop using animals in medical research, a move that would have prevented the development of various lifesaving treatments, such as the polio vaccine.

"If you're talking about rights, then you have to be arbitrary about where you draw the line," says Mr. O'Connor. "Why sentience? Why not just being a human being?" Human beings are making that distinction, he says, and it can be pursued to strange extremes. "You can bestow rights to rocks. Or say that rivers have rights not to be desecrated. Why should we buy into their assumptions?"

Ousted

Since starting the animal-liberation press office and taking a higher profile role in defending the Animal Liberation Front, Mr. Best has lost his post as chairman of the philosophy department at El Paso. He maintains that the two things are inextricably linked. Others at the university, including Mr. Best's dean, say there is no connection.

This much is clear: The six other members of the philosophy department voted unanimously in March to recommend to their dean that Mr. Best be removed as chairman, a position he had held for four years.

Mr. Best calls that decision an ambush. He says that while he may not have been the perfect chairman, his colleagues never told him they had problems with him. After the vote, he says, students in the department told him that they heard other professors saying, "If we don't get rid of Best, we're going to have another Ward Churchill on our hands," referring to the controversial University of Colorado at Boulder professor.

But philosophy professors at El Paso say their decision had nothing to do with Mr. Best's activism. "We were extremely unsatisfied with his performance as chairman," says John Symons, an assistant professor. "From our perspective, this has nothing do with his politics. It was a matter of running the practical affairs of the department."

At the same time, Mr. Symons defends his colleague's activism. "Steve is a passionate defender of the Animal Liberation Front," he says. "But he is by no means a recruiter for the Animal Liberation Front."

Howard C. Daudistel, dean of liberal arts at El Paso, says the change in leadership in the philosophy department was solely about administrative issues. "Our position is that Dr. Best, just as any faculty member, has a right to express his views and engage in a discourse off campus or in any setting, as long as he is not representing himself as speaking for the institution," he says.

The dean also says he spoke to Mr. Best about the charge that he was recruiting students to the ALF. "There's no evidence that he has used the classroom to recruit students to take part in any actions," Mr. Daudistel says.

Adrian Paredes, a student of Mr. Best's, says the entire notion is absurd. "The ALF isn't some big group," he says. "It's not an organization you could join. How could you even recruit for that? That's just crazy."

Mr. Best displays a dark sense of humor amid the criticism. As he sits in his living room, defending his activism and talking about his heroes within the animal-rights struggle, yet another cat -- a slender black-and-white one named Gadget -- strolls into the room.

"He's incredibly sweet," the professor says. "But he like to start fights. He terrorizes the other cats." Gadget meows at the sliding-glass door, and Mr. Best lets him into the backyard. "That's why I call him Osama bin Gadget."