Animal rights and wrongs

Bibi van der Zee

For more than 30 years, the United Kingdom was known as the global centre of animal rights extremism until a government crackdown in 2006 curtailed the activities of the hard-line groups. Where did the movement come from and what has it left behind, asks Bibi van der Zee? 

In 2006, John Ablewhite and Kerry Whitburn were at the centre of a media inferno, when they were convicted of involvement in the digging up of the body of 87-year-old Gladys Hammond. The British papers had uniformly labelled them ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’. The FBI described the UK as “the global centre of animal rights extremism”. 

This particular crime, after a 30-year animal rights campaign that had included the use of tactics ranging from blockades to firebombing, pouring paint stripper over cars, and targeting the staff and backers of animal research institutes, appeared to finally galvanise the UK government into action. In the next two years, the British prime minister, himself, would sign a petition in support of animal testing and pass a flurry of draconian laws to protect animal research and criminalise those who protested against it. Police would crack down on street stalls that, they claimed, raised money for the extremists, and would arrest dozens of animal rights campaigners, sending many of them to jail. 

By the time Ablewhite and Whitburn emerged from prison in September 2011, the animal rights movement in the UK had been decimated. The harsh sentencing and extravagant police powers meant that any new campaigns were decapitated immediately, while the actions of Ablewhite, Whitburn and a few other extremists had tarnished the image of the movement so that support appeared to be waning. In retrospect, it seems incredible; where on earth did this burst of activity come from? 

In 1978, Professor Peter Singer argued in his book Animal Liberation that we should not discriminate against animals because of their species but instead judge on the capacity for suffering. “All the arguments to prove man’s superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering the animals are our equals,” he stated, to a world already caught up in a fervid discussion of rights for women, for aborigines, for the disabled. So, why not animals? 

In the UK in particular, there was a ready-made audience for Singer’s views. The more mainstream issue of animal welfare, such as trying to achieve better conditions for animals on farms, in medical experiments and in circuses, had been an issue here for at least 200 years, and the campaign against fox hunting had been growing increasingly bitter since the 1950s. 

During the early 1970s, groups called Bands of Mercy began targeting laboratories, and by the end of the decade the Animal Liberation Front had declared its battle against Singer’s ‘speciesism’, with the promise that neither humans nor animals would ever be harmed. The ALF broke into laboratories and farms to ‘rescue’ animals, and used arson and fire bombs among other tactics, although they claimed to always be extremely careful that no one was hurt in the process. 

But the Animal Rights Militia, who sent letter bombs to Margaret Thatcher and other politicians in 1982, and the Justice Department, who announced their existence in 1993 with another spate of letter bombs that injured four people, were less concerned about collateral damage. Who were they? Many believed they comprised extremely small groups – no more than 30 or 40 people, according to one police officer at the time – or even individuals operating alone.

Their activities, however, added a tremendous amount of confusion to the scene. One man, describing himself as ‘an animal rights campaigner’, claimed responsibility for the explosion beneath the car of a Porton Down vet in 1990. The same year, no one admitted being behind an explosion that seriously injured a 13-month-old child. A letter bombing campaign in 2001 aimed at fish and chip shops and charity shops that resulted in the blinding of a woman turned out to be the work of just one 26-year-old man. 

And although the activists in the ALF and in the wider movement may have deplored these actions, they usually failed to convey this to the public. They even allowed the ALF spokesperson to occasionally present the press releases of the other two groups – the Animal Rights Militia and the Justice Department – and to make disingenuous statements such as “The ALF would not [use nail-bombs] but we would understand the anger and frustration that would lead people to action of this kind”, thereby making it appear as if there was one group just operating under different names. 

To this day, some activists are unwilling to condemn the violent extremists, because, they say, they can understand the motives that drive them. They fail, still, to understand that it is not the motives, but the tactics that appal. As a result, the whole movement has been tainted in the eyes of the public. When the body of Gladys Hammond, whose family were involved in breeding guinea pigs for research, was dug up in 2004, the public had finally had enough. The establishment, shaken by the success of campaigners in shutting down or causing serious economic damage to the industry, was already baying for action. And the massive government crackdown followed. 

“The extremists set us back 16 years,” says Dr Dan Lyons of Uncaged. “They gave the government the perfect excuse to veil everything in secrecy – because researchers had to be protected – so that now, other campaigners just can’t get at the information. We have to fight and use freedom of information requests to find out any kind of detailed information at all, and it has made it far far harder to actually reveal what is going on in those laboratories.” 

It has also contaminated the debate. “There are serious scientific concerns about the effectiveness of animal research but it is impossible to have a real discussion about the issue; if you query the idea that the pursuit of knowledge alone justifies the means, you are labelled an extremist. Instead of a real debate, you’ve got nutters in balaclavas versus the scientific community.” 

The activists themselves also concede privately that the tactics may have to change. Keith Mann, an ALF member who himself served several years in prison for arson, says that, although he has no regrets about the tactics he used, he believes that “now we need to be out educating people – education is the way forward. It was glorious back in the day but perhaps it wasn’t always very thought out.” Mann disagrees that long-term damage has been done. “There’s less direct action around, but there are far more people involved, and the movement is spreading around the world, to different countries in Europe, to Russia, and New Zealand and Australia – we’re even in contact with people in China. It’s an incredibly vibrant movement. Our time has come.”

About the author:

Bibi van der Zee is author of The Protestor's Handbook


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