Animal welfare: arrest and activism









See also the pages

Bullfighting: arguments against and action against
Review of A L Kennedy: 'On Bullfighting'

Veganism: arguments against
Ethics: theory and practice

and Feminism and animals: the contracting circle

Supplementary material is in italics

Our arrest was sudden and unexpected but not dramatic. I was walking with another activist in the city centre, a police car came to a stop, without any screeching of brakes, and within a few moments we were inside the car. The experience didn't feel very momentous. A complete contrast with the description in Chapter 1 of Solzhenitsyn's 'The Gulag Archipelago.' Solzhenitsyn didn't exaggerate, of course: this was Stalinist Russia:

'Arrest! Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? That it is an unassimilable spiritual earthquake not every person can cope with, as a result of which people often slip into insanity?

'...If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm?

'But the darkened mind is incapable of embracing these displacements in our universe, and both the most sophisticated and the veriest simpleton among us, drawing on all life's experience, can gasp out only: "Me? What for?" '

The two of us were told by the arresting officers exactly 'what for.' 'Going equipped for criminal damage, possession of paint to attack fur coats.'

The ride to the police station took very little time. Conversation flagged on the way. The silences weren't too awkward, though. At the station, I was put in a cell on my own and the door clanged shut.

Initial impressions were very favourable. The cell was immaculate. I explored the cell. There wasn't a great deal to explore. I found en-suite toilet facilities, again, scrupulously clean. If  ever I write a 'Good Cell Guide' I'd give this cell four stars. There weren't the inconveniences of a one-star cell: grey hordes of lice waiting to leap out and fasten their  jaws on you, cockroaches scuttling across the floor, fresh or faded bloodstains on the walls, graffiti scratched laboriously, "Liberty or death!" nothing but toilet paper available on which to write poetry (although I suppose that usually, toilet paper isn't available in a one-star cell), thuds and screams from a neighbouring cell, from further off last shouts of defiance, a volley of shots followed by the crack of the coup de grace. There weren't twenty or so others crammed in the cell. Instead, silence, and that clinical spotlessness. The only thing that put me off was the bench - hard, unyielding, uncompromising. Not a thing you'd wish to lie on for a life sentence. A five-star cell would have a softer bench and perhaps a chair even (bolted to the floor, obviously, so a prisoner couldn't throw it at the staff.)

I worked for a year in a four-star hotel as a night porter. The experience wasn't nearly as interesting as George Orwell's work in hotels. Any guests who wanted their shoes polishing left the shoes outside the door in the corridor. I was asked to leave my shoes outside the door of this four star cell. I don't think I was asked to leave them there so that the police could polish them for me.  I speculated as to the reason. I vaguely remembered something about prevention of suicide - to prevent the inmate hanging himself with his own shoelaces. But hanging myself with my own shoelaces has never appealed to me.

One  thing about the comforts of the  hotel rooms, spiritual comforts in this case. The group known as the 'Gideons' provide Bibles in various places. In this hotel, every room had a Gideon New Testament and Psalms. The reckless generosity of the Gideons didn't extend to the full work. But in the cell, there was nothing from the Bible at all. I would have expected the Gideons to understand that the dark night of the soul, the desolation of the human spirit, was more likely in a cell, no matter how wonderful the cell, than in a four star hotel.

I'd make a plea for the full works, the complete Bible. It would be a great pity if prisoners were to be denied the resources of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. There are many religious groups and organizations whose members believe that the Bible is the Word of God, all of it, but in practice, they badly neglect some of scripture. Robert Graves recounts a sermon in his First World War memoir 'Goodbye to all that.' The sermon was about an obscure topic, the commutation of tithes, 'Quite up in the air, and took the men's minds off the fighting.'

I've known far worse conditions  in freedom. Once, a long time ago, when my money ran out in Ayr, I was forced to follow in the footsteps of George Orwell again and stay in a hostel for down and outs. It was called 'The Trades Hotel.' This was its real name, not a name given to it by humourists, even though anyone in a trade would have done anything to avoid it.

I only had sliced white bread and margarine to eat and as I didn't have a knife I smeared the margarine over the slices. The sleeping arrangements were these: a hundred or more men in one very large room, each one in a tiny cubicle. I asked someone why there was wire netting over the cubicles. It was to stop objects landing on you when anyone felt like throwing them. Sleep-preventing coughs, singing of only a modest standard and the blowing of a trumpet - much more accomplished - punctuated the very long nights. There were sheets and even a pillow case,   but they were rigid with dirt and when I came back to Sheffield I had to have treatment for the flea bites that covered my body. A few years after I was a guest there, the place burned down with the loss of six lives.

Before long, a police officer came to the little opening in the door, opened the flap and said something or other. All I can remember is the phrase 'When you appear in court.' If this was an attempt to unsettle me, to make me panic, it didn't have the desired effect. I've done nothing wrong! I'm completely innocent!

After two hours, it was clear that the police agreed that I didn't intend to commit criminal damage. We'd been searched, nothing had been found. We were released and able to experience again that blissful state, comparative freedom. I didn't gain a criminal record, and still don't have one. The experience had disadvantages. The most obvious one is that being arrested can make it harder to enter the U.S. Even if you've done nothing wrong, it can count against you. As I've no compelling reason to re-visit The Land of the Lethal Injection, this doesn't matter.

A few days after my release, I joined Amnesty International.  One of the novels which means the most to me is Kafka's 'The Trial.' Before long, I was doing work in the field of human rights and did so for a very long time, using methods very different from the militant methods I'd been using: writing to governments, boards of pardon and parole and other offenders, helping to raise funds. I've taken part in protests in the field of animal welfare since then but they have all been non-abrasive (apart from one I started myself in the bullfighting town of Arles.) One very good-humoured demonstration I took part in was the one  against a circus's treatment of Annie, an old and arthritic elephant which was filmed being beaten, shackled by the leg. The protests for Annie had the desired effect. Annie was rehomed.

 Undercover film showing Annie being beaten

Annie after rehoming

I received an email  which originated with Amnesty International about conditions in Mississippi at the State Penitentiary. It puts my own very short and pleasant incarceration in context:

'Over recent years, conditions on Mississippi’s death row have been severely criticized, including in relation to the psychological impact of these conditions and the poor mental health care provided. In May 2003, a federal judge ruled that the conditions in the State Penitentiary offended “contemporary concepts of decency, human dignity and precepts of civilization which we profess to possess”. Judge Jerry Davis found that death row inmates were being subjected to “profound isolation, intolerable stench and filth, consistent exposure to human excrement, dangerously high temperatures and humidity, insect infestations, deprivation of basic mental health care, and constant exposure to severely psychotic inmates in adjoining cells.” Among other things, the federal judge found that: the filthy conditions impacted on the mental health of inmates; the probability of heat-related illness was high for death row inmates, particularly those suffering from mental illness who either did not take appropriate steps to deal with the heat or whose medications interfere with the human body’s temperature regulation; the exposure to the severely psychotic individuals was intolerable; the mental health care provided to inmates was “grossly inadequate”; and the isolation of death row, combined with the conditions on it and the fact that its population are awaiting execution, would weaken even the strongest individual. In 2004, the US Court of Appeals “agree[d] that the conditions of inadequate mental health care… do present a risk of serious harm to the inmates' mental and physical health. Again, the obvious and pervasive nature of these conditions supports the… conclusion that [Mississippi Department of Correction] officials displayed a deliberate indifference to these conditions.” While the authorities have recently improved the environmental conditions on death row following the lawsuit brought against them, there has been an ongoing struggle to ensure adequate medical and mental health care."

A long time ago, I wrote a long letter  to the Warden of the Mississippi state penitentiary at the time, Don Cabana, who supervised the execution of Edward Johnson. The steps leading up to his execution were shown in the documentary 'Fourteen days in May.' I urged him to turn against the death penalty, giving reasons. Don Cabana did turn against the death penalty, although it's very unlikely that my letter had anything to do with his decision. Since then, he's spoken against it. His change of heart is recorded in his book 'Confessions of an Executioner.'

To return to my case, the false allegation that the two of us were carrying paint to deface fur coats came from the manageress of a fur department in a department store. We were members of a group which in a short space of time succeeded in closing down every fur department but one in the city. (The exception was visited by the Animal Liberation Front and closed after that.) If the manageress feared for her job, she may have been right.

The main tactic was for forty or so activists to descend on a fur department, sit down and refuse to leave, as simple as that. Subjecting the department store to intense inconvenience and unfavourable publicity.  I think these tactics were mistaken, that I was mistaken in taking part, that I should have confined myself to persuasion and argument.

We also arranged a couple of demonstrations outside the stores. I addressed a very large crowd of activists, shoppers and police through a megaphone, giving an outspoken account of the shame of the fur trade. I think that these demonstrations too were mistaken. The tactic which ought to have been employed was simply the holding of low-key demonstrations outside stores, handing out leaflets. The fur trade was in rapid decline in this country, in places where large demonstrations inside and outside stores were not taking place. The battle of ideas was being won.

What of the issues? I do claim that I did everything I could to investigate these issues, to ensure that my position was based on exhaustive evidence. My information about the fur trade came amongst other sources from the book 'Facts about Furs,' by Greta Nilsson and others, published by the Animal Welfare Institute and distributed in this country by the RSPCA. Of course, it's written from a particular perspective, but the accumulation of evidence, the detailed statistics, the many references, the examination of legislation in a great variety of countries, the fair-minded attempt to state and address the arguments of the pro-fur lobby - all of these are very impressive. The book even contains, in the Chapter on 'Alternatives to Fur,' a detailed examination of the energy costs of fake fur, trapped fur and ranched fur prepared by an engineer at the Scientific Research Laboratory of the Ford Motor Company in Michigan. He calculates that the energy costs of a real fur coat in the units he uses, BTU (1BTU = 1.055kJ) is 433 000, more than three times that of a fake fur (120 300 BTU), whilst the energy costs of a ranched fur are very much greater (7 965 800 BTU.)

The images in the book are shocking, but the book doesn't make the mistake of suggesting that an image can be any substitute for rational argument, the presentation of evidence, although now, when I'm no longer involved in the struggle to end the fur trade, the images do linger in the mind particularly. Above all, the images which show the cruelties of the leghold trap (banned in this country in 1958 but still permitted in most American states and Canada): a beaver which chewed off both its front paws to escape the leghold trap, a raccoon hanging by one leg from a trap, a large hole dug by a badger trying to escape a leghold trap, a coyote dead of apparent starvation in a trap, an animal with all its teeth broken, its jaw bone eroded in the struggle to escape, a golden eagle, a swan and many pets caught, losing limbs or their lives, a bobcat with protruding bones, a trapper killing a coyote by trampling on it. Methods of killing trapped animals aren't regulated in most American states. The cruelties involved in farmed fur are less obvious but real - keeping animals in barren cages until the time comes for their asphyxiation, and all for a completely unnecessary product.

The organization which played a more important part than any other in consigning the fur trade in this country to its present marginal, despised existence was Lynx, which was founded by Mark Glover and Lynne Kentish. The personal cost was very high. Mark Glover's work against the fur trade brought him to bankruptcy. The very large meetings organized with meticulous efficiency by Lynx publicized the issue dramatically, memorably, at a time when fur-wearing was quite common.

At this same period, I travelled the country to take part in demonstrations, very large demonstrations, to oppose factory farming or testing upon animals (I wasn't demonstrating against all animal experiments. I didn't oppose all animal experiments at the time and since then, I've become more sure than ever that some experiments can be justified.)

I see the need to avoid, and oppose, some common assumptions of some 'animal rights' advocates. Each issue which concerns the relations between animals and people has to be examined separately. A mechanical approach - deciding that animals always have the right to live, that humanity is always in the wrong in its relationship with animals - is a delusion. Animal rights advocates sometimes have exaggerated - or deranged - views, as when they claim that 'all species are equal.' My views are very different. I believe that homo sapiens is the superior species, with cultural and intellectual achievements far beyond those of other animals. I believe that although many experiments on animals are frivolous and without any benefits, many experiments can be justified and that physiology, the science with so many veterinary as well as medical benefits, could never have been advanced without animal experiments. I believe that animals sometimes need to be culled, as when they lack natural predators and would otherwise starve to death, that pests, such as rabbits, deer and pigeons have to be controlled if protective measures are completely impracticable, and that farmers have the right to raise animals for slaughter, provided that the animals are raised humanely - not in factory farm conditions - and are slaughtered humanely. (I've been a vegetarian for a very long time.) Destroying unwanted puppies and kittens is a task which devoted animal-lovers have to carry out again and again, an inescapable obligation if a worse fate for these animals is to be avoided. The very radical organization PETA destroys many, many animals for these reasons. It recognizes the harshness of reality to this extent. The Animal Liberation Front has killed many mice it was unable to rescue in a raid, recognizing the harshness of reality too. But these activists often ignore wider realities.

The demonstration against Lightwater Valley in Yorkshire had a particular impact. We saw rows of pigs, in clean but barren compartments, with no room to turn: a completely indefensible way to keep an animal. It wasn't, as might have been expected, hidden from view, out of shame, but open to the public, intended for family visits. But bad as conditions were, it was after all a kind of show home for factory farms. Others, not open to the public, inflict the same cruelty of close confinement, the thwarting of an animal's needs, but in conditions which are worse, not simply barren but filthy, physically disgusting as well as morally disgusting. A battery hen, a broiler hen, a pig living in an intensive unit, suffer conditions which may be more extreme than the ones on the Mississippi death row, and of course, all the animals are on death row as well, although they lack the Mississippi prisoners' knowledge of the plans made to kill them.

One of these demonstrations was organized and led by Peter Roberts, a remarkable man, one of the greatest of animal welfare campaigners. He's the founder of Compassion in World Farming, which campaigns against factory farming. He died in 2006.

Of course, then, as now, people who wanted to attend a demonstration could attend a demonstration. There were always people attending these demonstrations who weren't an asset to the animal welfare movement. Peter Roberts did his best to put a stop to one moronic chant, endlessly repeated: 'XY - whatever the name was - torture town, burn, burn burn it down!' And there was the chant 'What do we want? Animal Liberation! When do we want it? Now!' Now? This minute?

To assume that all animal rights activists are virtuous is the height of unreality. Animal rights activists include naive sentimentalists, fanatics, people right about the particular issues they support but arguably mistaken about a whole range of other issues (such as ones where people are concerned rather than animals), people right about the particular issue they support and completely misguided in the methods they support, and people far less vulnerable to criticism.

Even so, animal welfare activists often distort and their supporters distort. Animal Liberation Front activists and supporters who are uninterested in humanitarian reforms where people, rather than animals, are concerned (the vast majority, I would think) would do well to remember that if this indifference had been universal, there would have been no reforms of the criminal justice system. Two hundred years ago, a wide variety of property offences, including arson, were punished with the death penalty. Today, if there had been no humanitarian reforms to the criminal law, ALF members would be hanged in public for setting fire to a research laboratory or a slaughterhouse.

It's a grotesque misrepresentation to claim that the only important matter is animal welfare, of course. Animal welfare itself has been advanced by an immensely complex process which owes a great deal to animal welfare activists and supporters but so much, such as the scientists and technologists who have spared so many animals so much labour, by such  innovations as innovations in  bulk handling. Beyond that, a society depends upon so many skills which again owe nothing to animal welfare, to do with law, taxation, mathematics and many others. If a state threatens the free existence of other states, then animal welfarists and animal rights activists have a direct interest in opposing the hostile state. 'Animal-humanitarians' should receive their due, but no more than their due, and not at the expense of others who have chosen to work in very different fields.

There was extremism then and there's extremism now, but it was  more prevalent then. The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) carried out countless attacks, some of them small-scale, nuisance activities, some of them large-scale. Some attacks were far more pointless than others - attacking shops selling leather goods, for example. Some of them were worse than reckless and endangered life, such as the ALF 'visit' to the department store in this city which was holding out and still had a fur department. The ALF planted incendiary devices in furniture. When they went off in the night, the sprinkler system flooded the furniture department with water. The ALF members were arrested and put on trial. I attended some of the trial proceedings - I knew most of the defendants. They received prison sentences and the leading organizer got ten years.

Compassion in World Farming is one of the organizations which has achieved far more for farm animals than the ALF, by means of the patient campaigning which has led to "real legislative changes and real achievements" - as a politician might phrase it. It's work which may sometimes be tedious, routine, testing patience and stamina to the limit. It doesn't have the dramatic thrill of breaking into a factory farm under cover of darkness. There are many non-extremist organizations which I respect and admire so much in the field of animal welfare, run by exceptional people. One of them is the Belgian organization GAIA, headed by Michel Vandenbosch. GAIA has many achievements. After it approached retailers in Belgium, all the supermarket chains in Belgium stopped selling battery eggs. GAIA worked with Compassion in World Farming and other organizations to achieve the 2012 ban on the barren battery cage.

The ALF vastly misjudges and vastly underestimates the power of a modern state, including its economic power. (But I stress the fact that vast political and economic power may be contrasted with negligible moral authority.) ALF members would benefit by reading about something very different from their own concerns, the history of the allied bombing offensive in the Second World War. Targets which it was thought had been pulverized were often in production very soon after, production hardly affected. The power of the ALF to inflict economic damage was and remains not even puny. Now, the dense network of CCTV cameras makes it far harder to operate undetected.

Once an ALF member had been arrested, it became far harder to operate. ALF members who had served a prison sentence more often than not had to leave 'active service.' A very small number of people was able to cause damage out of all proportion to the numbers, but as there wasn't a steady stream of volunteers able to replace them, the ALF faced the problem of diminishing members as well as diminishing returns.

The Animal Liberation Front appealed and still does appeal to people of a certain temperament. There are people who object to factory farming who are unwilling or unable to spend their time writing letters, contacting local politicians, attending committee meetings. Direct action has far more appeal. It still appeals to me, but I include in 'direct action' making a scene, drawing attention to an abuse by abrasive but legal, action. I and others did just this when a circus with animal acts came to town. This action could very well have led to violence, but the violence was threatened by some circus workers against us. One spoke of breaking every bone in my body. It was comical to see a circus clown shouting out with the rest. Our action was non-violent and without any threats. (Later, one Christmas, I had another incongruous experience, of seeing a Father Christmas become very angry. He was with a reindeer, which looked miserable, and I'd said so to him.)

In a democracy, people should try to oppose abuses by persuasion within the law, by the ballot box, by legitimate campaigning, but I apply {restriction} - never, at any time committing acts of violence, or defending people who commit acts of violence, or doing anything to interfere with the right of free speech and free publication. In a totalitarian state, more can be permitted than purely non-violent protest. Stauffenberg planted a bomb in an attempt to kill Hitler and he was surely morally justified in his act.

The time needed for change for the better can be so protracted that for some people, particularly, perhaps, young people, this is intolerable. Why not do something now? But if action is taken, the 'something' has to be made concrete. There's no guarantee that the 'something' will be effective, more effective than the long and patient campaigning methods which Peter Roberts and others have used.

People who are not activists, in some cause or another, aren't inferior to activists. Activism is simply one sphere amongst many. Poets, musicians, scientists, engineers, scholars, mothers, fathers, and others, have their own demanding sphere, and it may leave them with little spare time or energy..




Fox caught in a leg hold trap

Demonstration calling for Annie the elephant, beaten at the circus, to be rehomed