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The Humane Society Crosses the Line

The animal advocacy movement is richly diverse, encompassing three major tendencies: animal welfare, animal rights and animal liberation. While all animal welfare and most animal rights groups insist on working within the legal boundaries of society, animal liberationists argue that the state is irrevocably corrupt and that legal approaches alone will never win justice for the animals.

Whereas animal liberationists have always urged a pluralist approach and shown appreciation for all tactics including those of welfare groups, the converse, unfortunately, has not been the case. Numerous welfare and rights groups have criticized the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) for actions they think hurt the image of animal advocacy and alienate potential sympathizers. Many mainstream organizations have even pulled out of conferences including direct-action speakers. Such divisive actions have less to do with principle than with the economic demands of membership and a fear of being tainted with guilt by association. The more an organization has to lose, the more it strives to separate itself from militant aspects of the movement. For the Humane Society of the US (HSUS), a small empire is at stake.

In recent years, HSUS—the largest animal advocacy group in the country—has expressed increasingly open and vocal criticism of direct action and of groups such as the ALF. Yet in an August Newsday article entitled “Feds Turn Up the Heat on ‘Ecoterrorists,'” HSUS crossed a line by demonstrating far more solidarity with the police state than with the animal rights cause itself. Denouncing the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the ALF, Michael Markarian, executive vice president of external affairs for HSUS, stated: “We applaud the FBI and law enforcement authorities for trying to crack down and root out these criminals.”

Fully aware of the unreliability of media sources, we contacted Markarian to confirm that he was accurately quoted. He replied with this message:

“In this case, my quote was accurate. The reporter asked me specifically about arson, and I told her in no uncertain terms that HSUS opposes such actions, and we believe that law enforcement agencies have a duty to stop people from engaging in this conduct, no matter what cause they claim to represent. As you know, HSUS has no quarrel with peaceful civil disobedience, but we have been very vocal in opposing activities such as property destruction, threats of violence, harassment and arson in the name of animal protection. We ask people to adhere to a code of conduct in how they treat animals, and we should be prepared to adhere to a civil code of conduct ourselves.

“We have a tough enough challenge in asking people to accept the idea that animals should be included in our moral calculus. It increases our degree of difficulty when our movement asks people to accept illegal tactics. Finally, I'll add that I believe these actions hand a major strategic opportunity to our opponents. We cede the moral high ground to vivisectors, factory farmers and others when we resort to these tactics. If people in our movement didn't engage in these tactics, it would not be surprising to have agent provocateurs conduct similar actions, as a means of undermining the credibility of the organizations and leaders of the movement.”

HSUS is trying to get the feds off its back, but only to turn them loose on others, as it “applauds” the actions of the police state and cheers the good guys in the “war on terrorism.” What HSUS doesn't acknowledge is the important victories for animals that have been achieved through illegal direct action. What it doesn't see is that it needs the “radicals” and “extremists” as a foil in order to position itself as “mainstream” and “respectable.” What it doesn't grasp is that what happens to any one aspect of the movement happens to all of it and that once the corporate-state complex goes after the underground, the same machinery will grind away at the aboveground if it begins to grow effective to any degree.

We solicited a response to HSUS's views from Kevin Jonas, the founder of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) USA, a prominent spokesperson for direct action, and someone who has been shoved around more than a bit by law enforcement agencies and officials:

“It has always been my policy that it's not a good idea to air the movement's dirty laundry in public. Disputes, dramas and squabbles should be reconciled internally and not enjoyed by our opposition and exploited as a divide-and-conquer tactic by the FBI. To this end, I have tasted blood on more than one occasion from biting my tongue.

“Believe me, I get it. I understand that the more ‘reputable' national welfare organizations feel they must keep their distance from the ‘radical' efforts. Their pursuits are policy and potlucks in the hopes of setting not only a legislative agenda, but also in attempting a more compassionate culture. In a post-9/11, security-crazed, constitutionally-challenged time, where animal-abuse lobbyists have adopted the Karl Rove playbook in attack ads, it can almost be forgivable that such large, right-of-center, mainstream organizations would insulate themselves from the organically grown, uncontrollable, nothing-to-lose, all-volunteer grassroots. Whether or not this distancing is a good idea or if the aims and objectives of such organizations are worthy of the tremendous resources devoted to them is another debate.

“What's changed, though, is that it is not just distance that these monolithic organizations are hoping to create, but tactical hegemony. By organizing boycotts of what were national movement conferences, by forbidding their many hundreds of employees from even attending certain demonstrations, by slandering grassroots efforts to their few donors and condemning actions in the press, they seek to help the corporate state redefine what are acceptable forms of activism.

“As if those fighting for animals didn't already have enough enemies, these actions pick a fight amongst colleagues and divide the movement. Organizations such as HSUS have begun parroting the eighth-grade rhetoric of George W. Bush, with insinuations that you are with them (their politics of the polite), or against them. HSUS's acquisition of smaller organizations and corporate mergers with other large national groups speaks to this attempt at hegemony and the triumph of a welfarist agenda at the expense of a rights/liberation position.

“The actions of the factory farms and vivisection labs are far more egregious than anything HSUS does, and they warrant all of the precious little time we have—but recent statements by HSUS have given me cause to wonder where its allegiances truly lie. When Markarian applauded the FBI for ‘trying to crack down and root out these criminals,' this was both politically distasteful and very, very personally troubling.

“The ‘criminals' Markarian is referring to are the unknown number of courageous activists risking their lives and liberty to free tortured animals and damage the mechanisms that cause their suffering. These ‘criminals' also include activists like myself and six others who are to stand trial in 2006—not for taking anything, breaking anything or even trespassing, but simply for having the goal of shutting down Huntingdon Life Sciences, a notorious animal-testing lab.

“In the eyes of HSUS, I am a criminal because I am young, passionate, take risks and am unabashed in my criticism of those who would ever dare raise a scalpel to the throat of a beagle puppy. I am a proud animal rights activist and apparently do not belong to the same movement that HSUS is seeking to homogenize.

“When Markarian and HSUS applauded the FBI, they took the right to disagreement a step too far. They are applauding the agency that drew four pistols on my dog and threatened to kill him, the agency that spent six months listening to my most personal and intimate phone conversations with family and friends, the agency that threatened to subpoena my dying grandfather to a grand jury investigating his grandson, the agency that ransacked my home and stole everything from CD collections to family photo albums. They are cheerleading the agency that is today trying to send me to jail for 23 years for only my speech-related activity with a legal protest campaign.

“When Markarian and HSUS clap for the FBI, they are supporting the same agency that tried to ruin Martin Luther King, Jr., that framed and even murdered anti-war activists of the '70s and that covered up the car bombing of prominent environmental activist Judi Bari. HSUS is standing behind a government force that is trying to do the same thing to the animal protection movement that it has tried (and succeeded) to do to virtually every other social justice struggle in recent US history.

“It is a new level of naïveté and treachery to think that we can find allies amongst the army of the oppressor. It is a position that does not meet the test of history or ethics. It is a position of inconsistency, for HSUS to not support direct action for animals because it is illegal and considered violent by some, while applauding the FBI, which has a long and documented history of criminal fraud and murder. This position is almost as outlandish as the belief that we as a movement can tackle the world's single greatest oppression and prejudice—the violent exploitation of animals—by simply being polite and patient, when no human-centered social justice struggle has ever succeeded using such tepid tactics.

“I am tired of biting my tongue. I don't want to be quiet anymore while executives at HSUS—who take six-figure salaries and some still even eat the animals that we are fighting for—condemn the risk-takers and courageous few that gave this movement its birth and its continued hope. This is a debate and dialogue that needs to take place, but sadly, you will only find one side willing to sit at the table of reconciliation. HSUS and others seek to silence this voice of dissent and retreat behind the same tired platitudes used by animal abusers evading confrontation.

“We humans are quarrelsome animals and will never agree about everything, but certain common ground and respect can be reached if we can stop the vilification. As a start, this is the challenge I give to Markarian, Wayne Pacelle and all those who represent HSUS: The next time you have the opportunity to comment on militant direct-action tactics in a news publication, condemn the lab employees or feedlot operators whom we are united against, and spare those who support the tough tactics that this movement needs to achieve its goals.”

If HSUS is right that this movement can win justice for animals (or really, according to its stated goals, improve the welfare of the animal slaves) through education and legislation alone, then why are more animals being tortured to death today than 20 years ago? Why is the mainstream movement barely able to do anything more than increase the size of cages and bring about “humane slaughter?” Why is it helping corporations polish their public image and mitigate consumer guilt over eating murdered animals?

There are lessons to be learned from the recent history of the environmental movement. As Mark Dowie describes in his book Losing Ground , the big, mainstream US environmental groups that emerged in the 1970s—the so-called “Gang of Ten”—clamored for respectability and political influence as they sold out, compromised, pandered to power and even thwarted grassroots radicals, while growing into bloated bureaucracies that craved business students more than acute activists. The same pattern has emerged in the animal advocacy movement, and it is a worrying trend.

But just as Paul Watson broke with the conservativism of Greenpeace to create the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and confront the bastards who kill animals with impunity on the high seas, just as the founders of Earth First! renounced the futility of mainstream environmental tactics and organizational corruption in order to spawn an important, militant, direct-action approach, and just as the ELF emerged to take the defense of the Earth to the next level, so there will always be a militant animal rights/liberation movement emerging in appropriate response to the increasing enormity of animal suffering that is tragically paralleled by the ineffectiveness of mainstream approaches.

Opposition to direct action is the last refuge of speciesism. The ALF, SHAC and other direct-action groups are employing the tough tactics necessary to help animals, and they are effective where other approaches fail. Ask any animal “advocate” who opposes the use of high-pressure and illegal tactics on behalf of animals if they also oppose the historical use of sabotage and even violence to free human beings in wars of independence and liberation, and you will expose the latent speciesist view that animals do not merit liberation “by any means necessary.”

The broad animal advocacy movement needs each and every effective tactic that helps the animals. It is time to turn the tables on mainstream criticism of direct action and to ask instead whether it is not, in fact, mainstream approaches that do more harm than good, as they cozy up with corporations, defend the murderous and violent police state, and trumpet the message that exploiting animals is acceptable so long as you do it “humanely.”

We're in this fight for animals together. The underground and direct-action movement doesn't expect solidarity from aboveground and mainstream groups like HSUS—but it does hope, at the very least, that the noble and uncompromising cause of abolitionism will not be vilified and betrayed by those courting favor with corporations and the state.

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