Animal rights fight not chicken feed
May 8, 2005

SUNDAY: "Animal abusers! Total losers! Animal abusers! Total losers!"

As a chant, it?s hard to beat: rhyme, humour, message, all there. Whether the delegates of the Third Annual International Poultry Broiler Nutritionists? Conference appreciate such creativity from the motley lot outside is another matter. They?re scientists flown in to Auckland from companies and universities around the Asia-Pacific region and probably need to sleep off their jet lag. At least the chant isn?t as noisy as the companion sirens, whistles and drumming on soya bean oil cans.

Half a dozen police wearing fluoro-yellow vests and fat-slug earpieces guard the Symonds St entrance to the conference venue, the Langham Hotel, formerly the Sheraton. The objects of their attention are jeaned and T-shirted, pierced and mohawked. They hold banners which read "Animal Abusers Go Home!", "From Shell to Hell" and the philosophical "Animal Liberation is Human Liberation".

Older, well-fed suits ? security guards? management? ? are Loitering Significantly. They?re outside every Langham entrance asking people to state their business before letting them into the hotel.

Guests look out of their windows wondering what all the fuss is about. The protesters are sorry to bother the Propecia Rally drivers, who are also staying at the hotel, but hey, that?s life. As the United States Army says about innocent bystanders caught in crossfire, the rally contingent is "collateral damage".

This fight is to help the broilers ? the industry name for chickens farmed for their meat rather than their eggs ? kept in "huge, ammonia-filled, windowless and cramped sheds", according to the leaflets being handed out, and their suffering is far worse than that inflicted on nearby humans by a spot of protesting.

The mysterious suits watching the protesters get tired and sit on the bus stop bench. Some cars toot as they go by, a middle-aged man walks past with a tray of eggs ? you just know they have been laid by battery hens. Did one of the protesters just raise his eyebrows in a friendly greeting to one of the cops? Could be ? you get the feeling they meet each other fairly often.

6.52PM: After more than two hours of cacophony, the protesters pack up. That?s another day?s work done by Auckland Animal Action (AAA). The hotel?s headaches might even clear before the pack is back tomorrow.

All rather exciting, being perceived as a threat. But AAA is "not an exclusive weirdo group ? we are mainstream," says AAA member Rob, over tofu burgers a few days later. Rob is a 36-year-old property developer earning six figures a year. Fellow AAA member Suzy, 31, talking with us at Vulcan Lane?s Raw Power Cafe, is a student in "computery stuff".

Rob, dressed casually and rather blandly, has a little beard tuft just below his bottom lip, Suzy, slightly more striking, with a long face and dark brunette curls, has a piercing below hers.

"The public perception of protesters is that we?re all unwashed hippies without jobs and we?re just uneducated smelly bums," says Rob. "Whereas I think there?s just one unemployed person in AAA. The average animal rights activist is uni-educated."

What sets them apart is their belief that using animals in any way is "cultural convenience" and exploitation. They believe that experimenting on animals, wearing them, eating them ? is entirely unnecessary and should be avoided.

Ninety per cent of AAA members are vegan, the other 10 per cent mostly vegetarian. Some occasionally eat meat, "but they?re new". You can eat meat and wear leather shoes and be concerned about animal welfare, but animal rights is a different kettle of textured vegetable protein.

"We?d like to abolish farming, but we?re realists," says Rob. Hence the focus on welfare issues, such as improving chicken treatment, as a first step. "It?s something that you can educate the public about. It?s easy for the public to understand."

AAA?s main focus now is stopping shops from selling fur and so far they have been successful. Suzy claims the group has stopped 30 stores in the past three years, by picking them off one by one. AAA sends a letter and information to the store about the cruel practices of fur farms, follows it up with a phone call, and if they don?t hear the shop owners saying: "My God, I didn?t realise how terrible the conditions were, I?m sending the merchandise back immediately," ? which happens fairly often ? the protests start.

Not many customers are brave enough to step into a shop surrounded by protesters and not many owners can deal long with the lack of custom. Belucci in Newmarket reportedly claimed an hour-long AAA protest cost them $3000 in lost business.

A couple of times, when shop owners were still holding out after two or three demonstrations, protesters chained themselves to the shop doors and prevented anyone coming in or out of the store. Last time, in High St in 2003, it took firefighters, police and the Jaws of Life several hours to prise them off.

The group?s aim? A fur-free Auckland. They?re concentrating now on factory-farmed fur ? most of it in New Zealand shops is rabbit fur from China, where the farms are not regulated and conditions for the animals, often skinned alive, are excruciating.

When AAA has stamped out factory-farmed fur, they will go where no public opinion has gone before ? targeting stores stocking possum fur. "One hundred per cent, we will win. To lose just isn?t in the equation," say Rob and Suzy.

8.30AM, MONDAY: Associate Agriculture Minister Damien O?Connor addresses the chicken feeders conference: "New Zealand ... upholds extremely high animal-welfare standards ... New Zealand consumers increasingly question not just what goes into the chicken they eat, but also how those chickens are raised ... our Animal Welfare Act ... is internationally recognised as progressive and forward thinking ..."

4.30PM: The AAA protesters turn up again, to highlight the fact that the barns are still ammonia-filled. At one point, 17 hotel guests stare out at them. One of them flashes his buttocks at the protesters. "We got it on tape," says Rob, happily. The noise is loud enough that office workers 16 storeys up in a nearby building leave early rather than try to soldier on with the disruption. AAA: "We?re not there to piss off Joe Public, we?re there to get our point across".

Often they do ? a major source of funds for AAA is people giving demonstrators donations, even though they do not actively solicit for funds.

However, not everyone agrees with their modus operandi. Even among animal rights activists, is a feeling that AAA?s aggressiveness might put people?s backs up and make them resist.

Their tactics are seen to be treating the symptom ? fur selling ? and not the cause ? public awareness. .Remember the images of the skinned fox on a poster and Neville Findlay of Zambesi in Stars-and-Stripes shorts on the front of the Herald a few weeks ago?

Zambesi, whose head designer is Findlay?s wife Elisabeth, was stocking two jackets with raccoon-fur collars ? raccoons killed as pests in North America, not farmed and tortured animals. But AAA says the raccoons were caught in inhumane traps, and that any fur use? especially by such a high-profile company as Zambesi ? promotes the industry as a whole.

Zambesi was ambushed by demonstrators. The activists say information was sent through the post beforehand but Findlay says he never received it. AAA has apologised for the sudden swoop, and now hands information to shops, so they know it has been delivered.

Findlay has sympathy for the AAA view but wishes they took a more "sensible and civilised approach". The parties are still trying to schedule a formal meeting, but Findlay has taken the offending jackets off the shelves. It is a pragmatic decision ? he doesn?t necessarily agree that Zambesi shouldn?t stock any fur, but he says: "I?d rather my staff were not sworn at and intimidated, which was happening."

Is AAA sometimes doing more harm than good to their cause? Their attitude is that it?s best if store owners start agreeing with them, but in the end it doesn?t matter why the stores take the fur off the shelves as long as it?s gone.

AAA will find they have more target stores this season ? fur is back in fashion. "The designers overseas hope people have forgotten [about the ethical concerns]," says canvas fashion editor Alice Rycroft. Clearly they haven?t. Jennifer Lopez had to face the gauntlet of protesters at her latest movie launch but ignored their demand to remove fur from her clothing range. Local designers are using mainly possum fur because most people don?t see anything wrong with adorning oneself with an environmental pest.

But AAA does. It is still using animals for vanity. Gossip columnist Bridget Saunders was thrown out of AAA when other members learned she had a business making garments out of possum fur and that she also sold recycled fur.

It says something of the schisms that protest groups are prone to that Save Animals From Exploitation (SAFE), another, larger animal rights group, is mild-mannered about Saunders. In fact, she was instrumental in organising a photo shoot of several high-profile socialites in feather bras for a SAFE billboard headed: "No chick deserves to suffer: boycott battery eggs."

SAFE national campaign director Hans Kriek says: "Bridget is a supporter of animal rights issues and has done a lot of good. We have a disagreement [over fur] ... but it?s no problem if some supporters disagree with some of our policies." SAFE is inclusive, a sort of animal-rights-for-beginners group, while the AAA practises staunch no-compromise.

6AM, TUESDAY: Surprise! This is your wake up chant, delegates ? the protesters are here already. Although this is one of the protests not noted on the AAA website "due to police monitering [sic]", the police are there anyway. From experience, the protesters suspect up to six police officers are staying at the hotel 24 hours a day.

A woman from a nearby apartment block, rudely awakened, comes down to throw eggs at the protesters, but is stopped by police. Perhaps she?s the reason police tell the protesters they can?t drum but they can still yell. One young man puts his fingers in his mouth and starts whistling. He is immediately arrested for disorderly behaviour, as are two other protesters, including a woman with a video camera.

"Arrested ? for whistling?" Rob shakes his head in disbelief at police heavy-handedness. Later AAA says it had "inside information" that conference delegates having breakfast in the restaurant were told to return to their hotel rooms, and that other hotel guests had left Langham to seek quieter accommodation elsewhere.

AAA admit they push the bounds of what they can do legally ? the only time they officially overstep the mark is when they padlock themselves to shops ? and arrests are fairly frequent, 10 last year. "It?s like driving a car, you get tickets," says Rob.

The activists are not anti-police; their fight is with the "animal abusers" not the boys in blue. But Rob says matter-of-factly his own "next arrest will be in June", at the Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching conference in Wellington. The main theme of what AAA calls "the vivisection conference" is "Animal Ethics Committees ... is the ethics real, imagined or necessary?"

But although arrests are to be expected, Rob and Suzy say it is rare for anyone to be convicted. "The most recent arrest was for a demo outside a shop selling fur on the North Shore ? two people were arrested for disorderly behaviour, they went to court, defended themselves without a lawyer and won," says Suzy.

"We get quite good at it," adds Rob, who after a handful of arrests has never been convicted but once, successfully, sued the police ? with the help of a lawyer ? for wrongful arrest and received enough money to go on an overseas holiday.

Rob met the officer in question at a demonstration later and asked him if the police hadn?t learned that it was just silly to react so strongly to protesters. "The cop just said, ?it?s not my f***ing money?."

6.30PM, WEDNESDAY: Another protester is arrested for disorderly behaviour after police "change the rules" and disallow any noise. Whenever a member is arrested, an AAA "team" stands outside the police station until they?re released "so that the first face that they see when they get out is a happy one," says Rob. The team will have drinks, chocolate ? vegan of course ? and hugs at the ready, as being arrested is still fairly traumatic, even if it is "just part of the job".

Being raided by police is more traumatic. In June last year, six AAA members had computers, video cameras, diaries and personal letters were removed from their homes. Two of the people involved have since moved because they felt so violated, says Suzy. Rob says phones have been bugged as well. Suzy and Rob not giving canvas their last names seems an understandable, if futile, bid for anonymity.

Why were they raided? AAA says the reason they were given was that Belucci staff made a complaint to the police that they felt threatened by AAA demonstrators at a protest several months before the raid. The police treated the question from canvas as a request under the Official Information Act and national manager for crime Win van der Velde replied: "The police had good cause to suspect that [specific] crimes had been or were being or were about to be committed by occupants of the addresses searched."

Those specific crimes? Theft, intimidation and disorderly behaviour. The alleged theft was of a sign in the Belucci shop window which said that no fur was sold in the shop. AAA denies both the sign?s claim and the accusation that they stole it. One person has pleaded guilty and was given diversion, court hearings for the five who pleaded not guilty are scheduled for this July. Suzy says the woman who pleaded guilty was a fairly new AAA member and attended the protest for only a few minutes ? she pleaded guilty so she could put the charge behind her.

Who knew you could be raided for offences so minor they could be wiped from your record with diversion? It is puzzling why police with overstretched resources would bother. Perhaps they?re concerned that AAA has links with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which operates anonymously and illegally ? although even ALF is publicly described by police as only a "low-level" criminal nuisance.

AAA openly supports ALF. "We understand why ALF do what they do," says Suzy. "These people need someone to publicly stand up [for them] because they obviously can?t do it themselves because they?ll be arrested." AAA gets anonymous emails from ALF about their activities which they pass on, and they send out press releases for ALF as well. ALF activists do not use violence against humans, but in other respects, the AAA is Sinn Fein to ALF?s Irish Republican Army.

7PM, THURSDAY: The protest starts late to coincide with the conference gala dinner. Police start arresting people for breach of the peace, when they refuse to stop making a noise. According to AAA "after seven people were arrested, the cops decided not to make any more arrests and let the remaining protesters make noise". The seven arrested included Suzy. All were released without charge.

It?s a dramatic end to the conference week. What has AAA achieved? As with all groups in this age of information overload, they hope they have raised public awareness. They hope Langham Hotel will think twice before hosting another "animal abusers event". And they have let the chicken feeders know that they care.