Opening the Cages with the ALF

An Interview with David Barbarash

DJ: What is the ALF?

DB: The Animal Liberation Front isn’t really an organization, but more of an international movement of animal liberation activists who believe conventional methods of protest aren’t enough to obtain the goals of animal liberation, and that there is a moral justification for taking action outside the law. Activists operate anonymously, usually at night, in cell-like structures of two to eight or more people. Sometimes you could have an ALF activist going out alone to spraypaint a wall, but usually even for simple actions like that you’d want someone looking down the street.

Members of the ALF follow a strict code of nonviolence. This means that there will be no harm, injury or death occuring to any animals, human or nonhuman, during the course of an action. We don’t consider the destruction of property a violent action, because we don’t believe you can do violence against something that isn’t alive, that cannot feel pain.

The goals of the ALF are to liberate animals from laboratories or other places of abuse. We set them free into the wild whenever it’s feasible, as in the case of mink or fox from fur farms. For obvious reasons animals liberated from laboratories aren’t set free in the wild, but are placed into homes. In fact finding homes for these animals is just as much a part of the action as taking them out of the labs.

As well as liberating animals, the ALF participates in what we call economic sabotage: we destroy property used to abuse, torture, and kill animals. We draw parallels with the freedom fighters in Nazi Germany, who liberated prisoners of war and destroyed equipment used by Nazis to torture or kill their victims. There was moral justification for taking action then, and we believe there is today as well.

The ALF doesn’t have a hierarchy of species: we don’t place humans above animals so far as their inherent right to live, and to live without being tortured. We don’t see a fundamental difference between a human killed in a gas chamber in Nazi Germany or a mink gassed on a fur farm.

DJ: What’s the scope of the ALF? Is it six people doing one action per year?

DB: It’s hard to gauge the scope because we don’t hear about every action, for example spraypainting walls, or going to McDonald’s and breaking windows. We do hear about the main actions – the arsons, the liberations – and the last few years have seen a sharp increase in actions against laboratories and university research facilities. Prior to that, those kinds of actions had dropped off for quite a while, as those facilities had become more aware of our tactics, and increased their security. But just last year we had four or five attacks on university research facilities or vivisection labs in North America, including animal liberation from these labs, in addition to any number of smaller raids on slaughterhouses, fur retailers, fur farms, and so on. Also we’re seeing an increased use of fire through the use of incendiary devices.

DJ: Which of course necessitates getting the animals out first.

DB: Fires aren’t set at any structures where lives could be involved. I guess it’s possible that if all the animals were released the facility would be burned, but normally the ALF are only able to remove a certain percentage of the animals.

DJ: How does someone choose which to remove?

DB: It’s hard, especially when you know what’s going to happen to those you leave behind. I was faced with that dilemma in a raid I did in Edmonton. We took out twenty-nine cats, but had to leave the rest behind. We also had to leave the dogs, and all sorts of other animals. You have to find homes for the animals before you do the action, so if you’ve found homes for thirty cats and five dogs, that’s all you can take, unless you want to risk trying to place them afterwards.

For basic security reasons, the people who house the animals likely aren’t the same as those who release them. Instead the people who create sanctuaries for these animals are part of a loose network we call the Underground Railroad, after the slave liberation movement.

DJ: So there’s a fairly large support network.

DB: As is true for any underground or revolutionary network, the ALF wouldn’t be as effective if there wasn’t a support network. I don’t have any direct contact with ALF members, but I’m considered part of the support network, because I’m the media liaison. Then there’s a support group in Guelph, Ontario, that raises funds for imprisoned ALF activists, and publicizes actions and issues in their magazine, Underground. In addition, there’s an informal network of animal rights activists in the aboveground movement who support the work of the ALF. The Underground Railroad houses rescued animals and sometimes even ALF activists. Without the support of these people, the ALF wouldn’t be nearly so successful.

DJ: How is contact made between the actual liberators and the Underground Railroad without giving away the liberators’ identities?

DB: That’s a risk. ALF activists have to personally approach individuals they think are sympathetic and able to care for animals. When I talk about the Underground Railroad, I don’t mean there’s a formal network communicating with each other. Instead, it’s an informal group of people who care about animals and are willing to take them in. If there are real security concerns, the ALF activist would have a trusted intermediary make the contact. The ALF always operate on a need-to-know basis, generally only talking about actions among themselves. If the activists are smart at all, they don’t boast or brag about their actions to other people, or use the phone, or anything like that.

DJ: Where did the ALF come from?

DB: It started in the United Kingdom in 1976. Before that, in the 1960s and early 1970s, animal rights activists began the Hunt Saboteurs Association, which sabotaged fox hunts by blowing whistles, calling off dogs, and so on. That movement continues to this day: it’s very large, and strong enough that the Labour government of Tony Blair is considering banning fox hunting. That was really the perfect issue to start with, since fox hunting is such an easy target. It’s so cruel, and there are obvious class issues involved.

In the early 70s, some members of the Hunt Saboteurs Association formed another organization called the Band of Mercy so they could focus on more issues, and also so they could begin employing other tactics, such as property destruction. In 1973 the Band of Mercy set fire to a pharmeceutical company, and in 1974 and 1975 they liberated animals from lab animal breeders and vivisection labs.

Some of these activists eventually served jail time. When Ronnie Lee got

out in 1976, he reformed the Band of Mercy into the Animal Liberation Front. By 1979 they’d made their first appearance in North America, when a group under the ALF banner raided New York University and liberated a couple of dogs. They emerged in Canada in 1980 with a raid on the Hospital for Sick Children in which they liberated some cats. That raid led to a famous picture that made the front page of the Toronto Star of a cat without any ears. For the last twenty years the actions have been accelerating.

The last few years have seen the development of the ELF, or Earth Liberation Front. An offshoot of Earth First!, they’re similar to the ALF in their tactics and philosophy, except their focus has expanded to include the earth and ecology as well as animals.

Being a much newer organization, the ELF doesn’t have as many actions under its belt, but there’ve been some huge ones. They’re responsible for the most costly act of economic sabotage ever in North America, burning down five structures, including a huge restaurant, at a ski resort near Vail, Colorado.

The ski resort was expanding into a public roadless area – some some of the last lynx habitat in the state – in a massive act of environmental destruction (and corporate welfare). Five days after legal remedies were exhausted and the ski expansion was given the go-ahead, ELF activists burned down the buildings, at a cost to the corporation of twelve million dollars. Since then a grand jury was convened which targetted local environmentalists, but no charges have ever been laid, or suspects identified. I think the costliest act of economic sabotage before that here in North America was in 1987, when the ALF burned down the UC Davis Diagnostic Laboratory, which was under construction. The cost for that one was about five million dollars.

I need to add that when we talk about the costs of economic sabotage, those are only the immediate costs. We hope of course that we’ll convince them not to rebuild, at the risk of facing similar consequences again. But even if they do rebuild, the actions will continue to cost them because they’ve had to increase their security. And they know they’re always a target.

There are other costs associated with sabotage, too. If you just burn down a structure like a fur feed warehouse, you’ve got a million and a half dollars worth of damage, and that’s it. But if you destroy the computer equipment in a university laboratory, you’re taking out five or ten years of research, much of which has to be redone, or may even be lost forever.

DJ: I read all the time – maybe a few times a month – about activists destroying genetically engineered crops. Is that the ELF?

DB: Sometimes. But most of those actions have been claimed by various groups like Reclaim the Seeds, Future Farmers of America, and so on. These groups are springing up all over; there is tremendous discontent with the status quo, and it’s manifesting all over in action.

DJ: Does the ALF do any hacking?

DB: There was a faction of the ALF called something like the ALF Internet Task Force that targeted companies with a program called floodnet, generating a huge number of emails to certain accounts and overloading their systems. They only did that a couple of times, and I haven’t heard from them since. I do know that those actions happen all the time, but it’s very rare for them to be claimed by the ALF or any other group.

DJ: How heterogeneous is the ALF?

DB: Since it’s an underground movement, we obviously don’t know precise demographics. But we have an idea based on who’s been arrested and convicted. In North America we’ve had everyone from young punk kids, anarchist teenagers, to people in their twenties and thirties like myself and my cat rescuing partner, Darren Thurston, to grandmothers and older women like the Chatham Five, who were convicted of releasing mink from a fur farm in Chatham, Ontario.

There’ve been a fair number of studies done on the animal rights movement, and they used to say the average animal rights activist was a middle-aged, middle-class white woman. I’m not sure that’s still true. I think the ALF is made up of those people, and people with dreadlocks, and people who believe animal rights is the only issue and don’t concern themselves with any other social justice issues, and people who’re aware of racism, sexism, homophobia, and who work on all those issues. I have to say, however, that at least for now there aren’t a lot of people of color in the movement, with some exceptions, like Rod Coronado, who is half Yaqui Indian, half Mexican.

DJ: I’ve heard of him.

DB: Like myself, Rod Coronado has been involved with nonviolent direct action for many years. I remember in 1989 when I and four friends were facing charges in Toronto for spray painting a KFC and other minor ALF actions, Rod and two of his friends were facing similar charges in Vancouver. But before that he took responsibility for a Sea Shepherd action which involved scuttling Icelandic whaling vessels and destroying a processing plant. Rod has also served time in jail for leading an ALF campaign against the fur industry which involved releasing animals and burning down fur research labs.

DJ: How do you respond to the label you get so often in the corporate press, about being ecoterrorists or animal rights terrorists?

DB: I completely reject the terrorist label. People who have a vested interest in abusing or killing animals aren’t going to want to understand what the ALF is about, and will try to make sure no one else understands, either. So they paint ALF or ELF activists as terrorists. But here’s my question for them: Where’s the body count? Show me the people who’ve died or even been injured as a result of animal liberation actions. Show me even a firefighter injured putting out a blaze caused by the ALF. They can’t, because no one has ever been injured.

I’ll tell you what has happened, though. Activists have been bombed. Activists have been shot. I can show you people who’ve been beaten up and put into the hospital at regular fur protests, and people who’ve had all their teeth knocked out with baseball bats. I can tell you about ALF activists who’ve been shot in the back. I could show you a list of animal abusers – people who for a living do violence on animals – who’ve used violence as a way to combat animal liberators. I can’t find one instance of a victim of violence from an animal liberator, yet we are the ones who are constantly labeled as terrorists. It’s absurd.

DJ: What about the razor blades?

DB: A group called the Justice Department, an extreme faction of the animal liberation movement, has said they’re willing to harm humans to further animal liberation goals. They have carried out these booby trapped razor blade letter campaigns in England, the U.S. and in Canada, targetting individuals associated to animal cruelty and abuse. It’s not unusual in human society to have people bent on doing violence and harm to others, and the animal liberation movement is no different. Same goes for the anti-abortionists, the black liberationists, native sovereigntists, and others. The Justice Dept. is very clearly a small minority, and the vast majority of animal rights supporters are nonviolent. But even when you analyse the JD razor blade actions and the amount of actual harm they can inflict on someone, how does that compare to what faces animals in labs or those being hunted? I’m not going to justify that kind of violence, because I don’t believe in it, but I don’t think causing razor cuts on fingers equates to terrorism, not compared to what’s been inflicted on activists by animal abusers, certainly not compared to what, for example, the US military does on a routine basis, and absolutely not compared to the vast torture of nonhuman animals on which our system is based.

DJ: Even if we include the razor cuts – and I realize the razors were not sent by the ALF – it seems the level of effort that goes into squelching the ALF is often out of scale with the damage – and I’m thinking of the liberations and sabotage – they actually do.

DB: The level of repression is out of scale only if you use a common sense philosophy of how the world should work. The ALF may not be dangerous in terms of actual damage we cause, although we have caused millions of dollars of damage to industries like fur farming, but we’re very dangerous philosophically. Part of the danger is that we don’t buy into the illusion that property is worth more than life, which is one of the fundamental and generally unstated assumptions of our culture. We bring that insane priority into the light, which is something the system cannot survive.

I remember that when I was in jail for liberating cats and creating a bit of property destruction – not using fire or anything, just spraypainting – I was denied bail because, as the judge put it, I “was a danger to the public.”

DJ: And you’re a vegan. . . .

DB: I don’t even eat honey, because I don’t like to harm any living being. But during my time of incarceration I saw people come and go through the jail’s revolving door who beat their wives or girlfriends, who got in fights on the street, who knifed people. For them, bail was generally set at five hundred or a thousand dollars.

We asked the judge even to set my bail at some ridiculously high amount, like $100,000, but he said no deal. There really is something wrong with our culture. If you beat up a stranger, it’s not a problem. If you beat your wife or girlfriend, it’s not a problem. If you commit crimes for purely selfish motivations – you want to get rich, you want things – it’s not a problem. But if you commit crimes for political reasons, it’s dangerous, because it threatens the structures our society is based on. Animal exploitation industries like animal agriculture, medical research, and the pharmaceutical industry form some of the bases for our society. They go to the core of what we’re about as a so-called civilization.

But there’s another reason for the repression. Activists in the ALF and the ELF organize on a very anarchic structure, and are extremely adept at taking actions without getting caught, and without leaving forensic identification. They know how to use internet security, they know how to travel anonymously, and they know how to create funding for their actions. But here’s the thing: for the most part the activists are very normal people, living normal lives, many even having normal jobs. That is a real threat to the state, because I think those in power understand – perhaps not on a conscious level, but certainly in their guts – what this could lead to when enough regular people decide they’ve had enough of this illusion of a society, and want to do something about it, want to make a change. Not necessarily for animal or earth liberation reasons, but because they’re sick and tired of getting paid six dollars an hour for a shitty job, or getting pushed around by the cops because of their skin color, or they’re just fed up because they want to be living genuine lives, feeling genuine emotions, and doing something meaningful.

Perhaps even more important than the actions of liberation and sabotage themselves are the ideas and possibilities the ALF and ELF offer to normal people about how they can organize and take action in a safe, focused, and direct manner.

DJ: They also offer tangible victories, something that’s extremely rare at least in the environmental movement.

DB: We’re seeing victories in the animal liberation movement, more in Europe and England than here. We’re starting to see bans on fur farming in countries like Belgium, or local governments adopting measures banning animals in circuses or the importation of wild dolphins and whales.

The fur industry is decimated in England, where only a couple of fur farms remain. Through continued protests and raids, we were able to shut down the main breeder of cats for scientific research, as well as many breeders of dogs for research. England is a special case, because there’s such a strong movement there, but all over we’re winning these real victories, actually shutting down these places of torture.

DJ: I love the fact that even when the actions are small, the activists are still taking the offensive. Most of our environmental battles are purely defensive: trying to stop this or that piece of destruction.

DB: The actions are about taking responsibility. That’s what the ALF is based on. It’s saying, “I’m tired of waiting for the people we’re petitioning to take action to stop animal abuse, because they’re either not doing it or they’re taking too long and animals are still dying.” If I’m going to take responsibility for these animals’ suffering, these animals’ pain, which I know is continuing every day, every hour, I’ve really got to take some action to stop this moral outrage.

DJ: I’ve read in the corporate press that the ALF is out to rob people of their pets.

DB: Of course not. Where do you think the animals we liberate from labs end up?

I need to be clear about how the ALF chooses targets. Each individual cell decides for themselves what they’ll focus on, and what tactics they will use. One cell might decide to focus on chicken liberation and may choose to raid a factory farm and save some chickens. Another ALF group might choose fur farming and release mink. Yet another might target meat trucks with incendiary devices. Because of that absolute autonomy on the part of the individual cells, you never know who or what the ALF will target.

That said, it’s been pretty standard that the ALF doesn’t normally target the individual fisherman or hunter or pet abuser, although they do find issue with all of these. Tactically it’s much stronger to focus on larger targets, industrial targets, ones that are going to make a difference. If you’re going to spend all that time and energy and money, if you’re going to risk blowing your cover, if you’re going to risk felony charges and major time, you don’t want to waste it on something of little significance or consequence.

DJ: I see an analogy to my own environmental work, in that although I oppose all industrial forestry, I often work with independent loggers against transnational timber companies. The loggers and I both know that in our lifetimes the opposition is more theoretical, because we’re both so busy fighting this much larger enemy.

DB: That’s analogous, but not completely. Although some of our main targets in the fur retail industry include Niemann-Marcus, Macy’s, and Bloomingtons, we also target mom and pop fur retailers. The same is true for butchers and slaughterhouses. The reason is that there may be only two or three fur retailers in a city, and if you want to eliminate them all, you want to eliminate them all, no matter the ownership. Sometimes the big department stores are easier to target, because they’re not making a lot of profit off their furs right now, meaning if you cause them to sustain a lot of monetary damages they can be convinced their fur trim line isn’t worth the trouble. Obviously if the store’s only focus is on furs, it will be harder to convince them to quit the business, but we have had fur stores shut down because of repeated attacks on their windows, or from fires.

DJ: How do you respond to criticism that by interfering with animal research you’re killing children: if you hadn’t liberated any cats, the researchers would have cured leukemia by now.

DB: Animal research has provided a few stopgap measures for some of society’s ills, such as environmentally-caused diseases like cancer or AIDS, and more generally science has managed to create some pharmaceuticals that enable people to live longer. But science hasn’t cured these diseases, and for a number of reasons I don’t believe it ever will.

To start with, they’re using animal models, which is a fraudulent science. You can’t give a mouse Alzheimer’s, create some procedure that helps the mouse, then say, “Let’s apply this to humans and see what happens.” If you’re going to look at these diseases, you’ve got to look at humans, you’ve got to look at clinical studies and trials, and you’ve got to look at the environment.

Cancer is a great example. It’s a disease of western industrial civilization. This is, of course, true of so many of the diseases we’re inflicting on ourselves. Look at the chemicals and poisons we eat in our food, breathe in our air, and drink in our water. Look at the stress people are under in their daily lives to go to work, provide for their families, pay their bills, and live under this repressive so-called democracy that resembles nothing so much as a large prison.

Another reason it’s fraudulent, and why cancer won’t be cured, is because “curing” it is a multi-billion dollar industry. People making six or seven digit salaries as administrators in cancer institutes and pharmaceutical corporations are not going to turn off that cash-spigot. They’ll do anything to keep their business going, including torturing millions upon millions of animals.

DJ: You keep talking about torture, but I hear in the corporate press all the time that the animals are actually quite well taken care of. There are laws on the books saying they have to anesthetize animals before surgery, and so on.

DB: Well, they don’t use anesthesia when they do studies on pain. The cats I rescued from the lab were destined to have their spinal cords broken to study how to repair them; I can’t imagine there would be no pain involved. Baby primates will have their eyes sewn shut in deprivation experiments. Vocal cords are often severed so that the animals can’t scream during their torture. Have you ever had surgery? Sure, you were anesthetized during the surgery, but afterwards did you feel any pain? Of course you did. That’s why they give you pain medications afterwards.

But it all comes back to the bigger philosophical point, which is if you consider both humans and nonhumans as having an inherent right to live free from torture and abuse, then there can never be any justification for torturing a nonhuman in order to find a cure for a human-species related disease. It’s our disease, it’s our shit, and we’ve got to deal with it. There can be no justification for creating this kind of horror on another individual because we have a belief that humans are greater than this other species.

DJ: This may not be a fair question, but if by torturing 5700 mice, or 570,000 mice, or whatever, they could find a cure for leukemia, would that be okay?

DB: I don’t think it’s a fair question because I don’t think it’s going to happen. So far as the question itself, I would turn it back around and point to medical research the Nazis did on Jews and others they considered inferior. Is that research ethical? I don’t think so. Simply considering another inferior doesn’t convey to us the right to torture them, even if we believe we may gain useful information by doing so. It’s a ridiculous question anyway, and one I get all the time. If you really want to stop kids from getting leukemia, or any kind of cancer, don’t put chemical and oil refineries above their aquifers, or spray Roundup on our food, or leak toxic waste into our rivers and oceans.

The question is also racist and classist. Here’s why: we’ve got over six billion people on the planet, the vast minority of whom live in North America and are white. Yet whom are these cures supposed to save?

DJ: I remember reading several years ago that for the price of a single B-1 bomber, about $285 million, we could provide basic immunization treatments, such as shots for chicken pox, diptheria, and measles, to the roughly 575 million children in the world who lack them, thus saving 2.5 million lives annually. The point is that saving the lives of children is never the point, despite the rhetoric.

DB: Exactly. Billions upon billions of dollars are spent and millions upon millions of animals are tortured, all in the illusory hope of creating cures for a minority of individuals on this planet, a minority who abuse their bodies and the environment, and then say, “Well, I’ve got cancer because of all this shit I’m eating and drinking, and stress, and the society we live in, so let’s kill a bunch of animals because we in North America deserve to live longer.”

DJ: You mentioned that the culture resembles a prison. You’ve done some time.

DB: It’s funny: when I got out of prison and its extreme regimen back into so-called free society, I said, “Wow, we still have prison walls, we still have prison guards. We have a little more room to run, but it’s still a prison. There’s not much difference. Even in terms of the food we’re offered.” It was a real eye-opener.

DJ: I don’t mean to demean the experience of the students I teach at a prison, but I’ve got to tell you it reminds me so much of school, only now the hall monitors carry mace.

DB: Prison concentrates the most violent bullies of high school into one tiny contained area. I’m talking about both the inmates and the guards. The guards are there, obviously, because to some extent they enjoy being part of that over/under mentality.

DJ: How did you end up in jail?

DB: On June 1, 1992, Darren Thurston and I raided the University of Alberta bioanimal kennels in Edmonton. This was a holding facility that took in cats and dogs mostly from farmers – whom they paid about forty bucks per cat they caught around their barns – or breeders and prepped them before shipping them to different research facilities within the university. They started them on special diets or gave them drugs. We took out twenty-nine cats, and created about $75,000 worth of damage to the building.

DJ: Were a lot of the cats feral?

DB: Yes. In fact there were four or five we couldn’t catch because they were too scared.

DJ: How does one find a home for a feral cat?

DB: Some people – like farmers with barns – will take feral cats. In our case, finding homes even for twenty-nine cats wasn’t a problem. After we carried the cats out in individual boxes, we went to a motel room and took some videos and pictures for the media. That was my downfall, which I’ll talk about in a minute. Then we sent out press releases, and delivered the cats first to a vet to make sure they weren’t diseased, and then to their homes.

DJ: Not to incriminate anybody, but are the vets usually in on it, or do you just go in and pay for someone to look at twenty-nine cats?

DB: These are vets who are also animal rights sympathizers. They can pretty well guess what’s going on. It would be too dangerous to use just any vet, especially after the press hits.

Anyway, Darren got caught because the authorities found his fingerprint on a bottle of paint we’d used inside the facility. We’d worn gloves, of course, but evidently his had a hole in it.

DJ: One little detail can trip you up. . . .

DB: My mistake was even worse. We put up a banner that said ALF as a backdrop in the motel, then did some video work, cleaned the place up, and split. The police tracked down the motel room from the video and dusted it for prints. They found a piece of tape left on a curtain rod used to hang up the banner, and on the tape I’d left a thumbprint. That was how I got nailed. They put out a warrant for my arrest, but by that time I was already in the United States, where I stayed for two years until I was apprehended in an FBI roadblock in California, which was very exciting.

DJ: Were you underground in the States?

DB: Yes, though not completely, because I was still associating with known animal rights activists, and my friends.

DJ: Were you going by your own name?

DB: I had false ID. But the feds figured out where I was, and waited for me on a road leading from a friend’s house. It was all very surreal. There were probably fifteen cops, all behind their cardoors with their guns drawn. Through a bullhorn they ordered me to use my left hand to open my door, then to get out and kneel on the pavement, hands on my head. After they had the cuffs on me they crouched towards my car with guns drawn to make sure my car was secure.

DJ: Tell me again how much damage you did in your action.

DB: Seventy-five thousand dollars.

DJ: How much did they spend to get you?

DB: I’ve been under investigation since 1995. I’m sure they’ve spent millions of dollars on me. I’m still always under investigation, and still always under surveillance. I guess you could say it’s my form of personal economic sabotage against the state.

Anyway, I got arrested, and spent the next three weeks in nine different facilities in California till I was formally deported. I was sent to the Edmonton Remand Center, which is a holding facility, where I was denied bail. I spent four months altogether before I pled guilty to being an accessory after the fact to breaking and entering

DJ: After the fact?

DB: They could only place me at the motel. Thurston got hit harder because his print was at the scene, and also because he faced a charge of arson from a previous action. He served a total of two years. After having been the subject of an international manhunt, and being called a danger to the public, I got sentenced to time served and probation.

DJ: What’s the longest any ALF activists have been put away?

DB: Rod Coronado was sentenced to fifty-seven months, but that included a nonrelated charge. He was convicted of theft and destruction of federal property for taking a cavalryman’s journal from the museum at Little Big Horn. I’m not sure how much he would have gotten had he not been connected to that one. In any event, he served fifty-seven months and is now free.

DJ: What does it cost to do an action?

DB: Cost depends on scope, and usually comes in the form of gas money and motel rooms, if you choose to sleep in motels when you’re on the road or doing surveillance. An action happens in one night, but there might be nights or weeks of surveillance first.

An interesting letter came out of an ALF cell after an action last year. The raid was against a facility – Biodevices, in California – that vivisects on dogs for pacemakers. The ALF activists took all forty-six dogs, which was an incredible feat. . . .

DJ: Where could they put forty-six dogs?

DB: That’s why it was so incredible. I can’t imagine where they found homes for that many dogs. So far as carrying them out, they probably got a bunch of boxes or doggie carriers, and rented a one-ton truck.

DJ: Wouldn’t it be dangerous to rent a truck?

DB: There are ways to do it. You can have fake ID. Or a sympathetic person with an alibi can offer a credit card. Then if that person ever got subpoenaed before a grand jury, she or he would have to decide whether to talk or to go to jail for not cooperating.

Anyway, one of the activists in that cell wrote a letter taking issue with the fact that once the facility was emptied, they hadn’t burned it down. Evidently, some of the other activists within the cell hadn’t wanted to do that. The interesting point of the letter was that the action had cost $7000, and if the cell had just been interested in saving dogs, they should have gone to the pound, where they would have saved a lot more lives for their money.

DJ: The letter writer has a point.

DB: I think the effect of this raid was more dramatic and long term than going to the pound, but the letter implicitly raises the very good question of the distinction between symbolic and nonsymbolic action.

Saving forty-six dogs from the pound would have been a purely nonsymbolic action, in that you’re not making a point. Writing letters or doing protests is purely symbolic, in that no actual animals are saved. I think that the ALF tries to stay away from either of those poles. A lot of ALF/ELF members are motivated to do what they do in part because they believe much of the environmental movement has been reduced to symbolic posturing that does little more than waste time and energy. Sure, symbolic actions gain some media benefit, raise some public awareness, but they don’t really get us anywhere in terms of saving habitat or saving the lives of animals. We’re not seeing real movement, real progress. Everytime somebody hangs another banner, we get a little slogan across, and the picture is in the paper or on tv, but what have we really accomplished? But no matter what the effect of freeing those dogs from Biodevices was on discourse, the truth is that those activists saved the lives of forty-six dogs from lives of open-heart surgery, and the torture that goes with that.

DJ: What would you hope ALF and ELF actions ultimately lead to?

DB: I’d hope they lead to a larger number of people understanding that it doesn’t take a special person to take action, that anyone can take action, and that we have a moral responsibility and obligation to take action against torture and abuse, whether that torture and abuse is of humans, nonhumans, or our environment. Our planet is being killed, animal species are being killed, and we have a responsibility to stop this killing any way we can.

I would hope that after hearing about the action at Vail, some people would stop and think, “Wow, some people felt strongly enough about the lynx that they burned down five structures thousands of feet up a mountain and got away with it.” I would hope a lot of people would be inspired by that, and they would take action on the issues that are close to their own hearts. I would hope that these actions would cause them to stop and think about their own lives.

How many people are disgusted by slaughterhouses? If a couple of normal, everyday people can go into a slaughterhouse and remove chickens – give these chickens lives – and in so doing make a strong statement of their opposition to those kinds of horrendous crimes against nature, then anybody can do it.

DJ: How can anybody do it and still be safe? After all, we’re talking about felonies.

DB: First, I’d say people should watch out for provocateurs. The FBI has long made a habit of infiltrating movements. That means you should work with people you know and trust.

Second, there’s plenty of good information out there about security, and there are plenty of people trying to make that information as widely known and understood as possible. A website, called the frontline information site, has a vast amount of information about security: how not to leave forensic identification or evidence behind, how to conduct yourself among your friends and co-activists in terms of talking and not talking, and stories about how one person started working with the ALF.

Lots of this information is available for anyone who wants to look for it, either on the web, in booklets distributed by animal rights groups, in magazines like The Earth First! Journal, or No Compromise, or Live Wild or Die, or Underground.

Probably the most important single piece of information is for people to keep their mouths shut. Very often people get busted not because of any great police detective work, but because of their own mouths, or the mouths of other people. Darren and I were a different story, and Rod Coronado was a very different story: several people spent several months a piece in jail because they wouldn’t cooperate with the grand juries investigating Rod.

DJ: I want to go back to the question of what you want. On the biggest scale, because industrial civilization is killing the planet, and killing us, I want to bring it down, causing as little damage to human and nonhuman life as possible. Does the ALF/ELF want that?

DB: I don’t think bringing down industrial civilization is an explicitly stated goal of the ALF or ELF, but I do think it’s implicit in the goals they do state. Some of the explicit goals include: ending the agrifood business; ending the pharmaceutical industries; ending the vivisection industries; ending the animal-clothing and animal-entertainment industries; ending industrial logging; ending massive development and roadbuilding. These all add up, at least in my own mind, to that larger goal of either bringing down industrial civilization, or at least radically altering the way this society works and the way people relate to their environment and other species.

DJ: How will change come about?

DB: I don’t think the actions of the underground groups by themselves can stop vivisection, factory farming, and so on. It will have to be the combined efforts of the ALF and the above-ground animal rights groups who protest, and the elderly men and women who write letters, and the people who do outreach, education: all that stuff is going to work toward a radical change in consciousness. The question, I think, is and always has been whether that radical change will come soon enough, before “it’s too late.”

DJ: We’re already in the midst of the apocalypse.

DB: Yes, we are in the midst of the apocalypse. Given the current course of civilization, I’m extremely pessimistic for the survival of our species, and for the survival of many other species. None of that stops me from taking action, because I wouldn’t be able to live with myself – and this is probably true for most activists – if I sat back and got a job and watched tv, when I knew something is going on. Once you know something’s very wrong with our culture, you can’t not do something, even if you’re not sure that whatever you do is going to make a difference. You have to do something.

DJ: Often after I give talks, someone will ask, “If things are so bleak, why don’t you just quit?” The truth is that it never occurs to me to quit.

DB: I don’t think it’s easy for people like us to quit, because once you have the knowledge, once you have the understanding, the consciousness, you’re stuck with what you know. And what I know is this: the environment is being destroyed, which means of course we’re destroying ourselves. I know if we are to survive, we have to really expand our consciousness, our circle of understanding and awareness, to include the environment, and to include the suffering of others, human and nonhuman alike. And I also know that if we give a shit about anything else besides ourselves and our money, then we need to start doing something, whether it’s joining the ALF or ELF underground, writing a letter, picketing in front of a fur store, or stopping a Wal-mart from coming into your community. Simply being born a biological human doesn’t automatically make you a human being and give you membership in human society. In order to become fully human and to be a member of any sort of human society we would care to join, we have to take responsibility – take active responsibility – for the actions of our species and of our selves. Sitting on the fence just doesn’t cut it. You might as well be dead.

Originally published in The Earth First! Journal, Yule 2002

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on December 17th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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