By means of a well-thought-out strategy, and extremely effective campaigning methods, SHAC has decimated a once powerful vivisection company and trepidation has been spread through the vivisection industry as a whole. —Ronnie Lee, founder of the Animal Liberation Front
by Kevin Jonas
The One-Two Punch
The debate over the use of animals in laboratory research has been taken to an uncomfortably personal level for those involved in this barbarous industry. The Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign, currently battling to close down the notorious Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) in 15 different countries, consistently pushes the middle ground of protest activity by engaging in unexpected home demonstrations, property destruction, liberations of animals, office disruptions, and electronic attacks. While controversy surrounds this campaign at every step and target, SHAC proudly proclaims that it is not your grandparents’ Humane Society or ASPCA, but rather a radical abolitionist effort that will not compromise, will not apologize, and will never relent.
Since 1999 the SHAC campaign has laid siege to Huntingdon Life Sciences—a contract research organization that kills roughly 500 animals a day testing household and industrial products—by means of a strategic combination of lawful campaign tactics and illegal direct action. This combination has targeted HLS employees, clients, investors, and laboratory suppliers by day (as hordes of emails, phone calls, and sign-wielding demonstrators obstruct the business), while breaking windows at homes, sinking private yachts, and disseminating personal credit card information throughout cyberspace by night. The combined impact of both types of action, legal and illegal, carries far more weight than either approach alone. Complete siege mentality has set in for those targeted; scores have capitulated to the SHAC bark, and even more to the SHAC bite.
Demonstrations on their own often seem benign and manageable to those on the receiving end. Likewise, ALF attacks have traditionally been random, and those targeted with liberations and economic sabotage could reasonably expect no further concerted efforts directed against them. The seemingly logical marriage of both forms of social activism has demonstrated that the grass roots can assemble an effective and cohesive fighting unit, independent of forces such as the mainstream press and political processes.
When Harry Met Sally
The SHAC campaign, and its unique blend of activism, has its origins in the UK in the mid-1990s.1 For over 25 years, the ALF in England had been hammering away at businesses that exploit animals. Thousands of animals were liberated from vivisection labs and millions of pounds in damage were inflicted. A few concerted efforts by direct action advocates at specific targets had met with success; for example, a series of arson attacks convinced all the major department stores to discontinue the sale of fur garments (especially after one major store, Dingles, completely burned to the ground), and Boots, a widely known drugstore chain, had its windows smashed so many times that it ceased testing its products on animals. By and large, however, the actions of the ALF were scattershot; accessibility and opportunity seemed to determine the targets of such direct actions.
At the same time, numerous aboveground campaigns were in progress. It seemed as though every weekend activists would hold a different placard at a different demonstration. One weekend you were demonstrating against the live export of animals, the next fur, and the next fox hunting. As public exposure to cruelty issues grew, positive change for the animals was slowly taking place, but the tangible accomplishments seemed stiflingly slow. Lacking strategy and cohesion, the movement was unable to curb the increasing number of animals killed.
In 1996 a husband-and-wife team decided, after years of this sort of protest campaigning, that they were going to try to infuse more strategy into the struggle and give the grass roots a much-needed victory. They decided to concentrate all their efforts on a breeder of beagles used for vivisection called Consort Kennels, a target that was winnable and whose demise would be significant. For 10 months the campaign to close Consort brought in hundreds from the grassroots animal movement to stage daily pickets, nightly home protests, and large riotous national demonstrations. At every turn those who owned and worked at Consort were greeted by screaming protesters. Meanwhile, the ALF went where protesters could not—liberating puppies from the facility, trashing the homes of the employees, and painting their cars. After 10 months of aggressive, nonstop pressure, the employee turnover rate and security costs became so great that it was no longer profitable to breed beagles for misery and death, and Consort closed, releasing its last 200 dogs to animal welfare advocates.
This victory was a much-needed shot in the arm for the British animal rights movement. It galvanized the grass roots into a formidable force. More importantly, it empowered these activists, demonstrating that the grass roots need not wait for the media to champion our cause, for the politicians to answer to us (rather than the corporate sector they are wedded to), and for the national groups to do our bidding for us. We can achieve animal liberation on our own. If all activists pool their resources and skills—deploying tactics ranging from letter writing to brick throwing—and concentrate on one target, the opposition does not stand a chance.
After Consort closed, the activists who had united against it turned to a new target, one that would become a legend in animal rights history. Hillgrove Cat Farm was one of the last commercial cat breeders for the vivisection industry and, as such, a significant component of the English animal research infrastructure. The all-out, high-pressure “Save the Hillgrove Cats” campaign ran for 18 months. Again, daily pickets, followed by nighttime home protests, and large-scale national demonstrations destroyed the morale of the owner and the employees. Christopher Brown, who owned the breeding facility, also lived on the premises. Over the course of the campaign he became so vilified that the Sunday Express dubbed him “the most evil man in Britain.” Brown also became the center of many ALF attacks. Not only were kittens rescued from the facility on several occasions, but Brown’s cars were firebombed, his windows were smashed, and a telephone pole was actually tipped over onto his home. The animal rights movement had never seen such intensity directed at one target, and, despite countless arrests and eventually a court injunction banning all demonstrations within five miles of the farm, the pressure in the end became too much and Brown closed the farm. Over 800 cats were released to the RSPCA for a chance at a better life.
This same recipe for success—the coupling of intense lawful protest activity with direct action focused on one target—has been repeated over and over again in England. A handful of fur stores have shut, a primate importer and breeder has closed permanently, and, in perhaps the truest testament to this strategy, rabbit breeder Regal Rabbits was closed in just one week. The campaign to close Regal was inspired by an ALF raid in which some 20 rabbits were saved. Only one week of intense action was needed, because the owner of the facility had seen what had happened at the other campaign targets and realized that he didn’t stand a chance. He released the remaining 1,300 lives to the very people who were trying to shut him down. He is now a mushroom farmer.
SHAC was born from these victories and strategic foundations in 1999. The idea of using every tool in the toolbox took form and was set into motion. Across the UK, then America, Europe, and the rest of the world, animal rights campaigners set about making HLS a name synonymous with animal cruelty. Preying upon the fiduciary vulnerabilities of the beleaguered lab, the SHAC campaign protested and aimed direct action against any company that financially or otherwise supported the lab. Unlike the breeders that had been singled out previously, HLS is a multinational corporation—with major investors and over 1,200 employees—that depends largely upon relationships with other companies for its operation. Simple daily pickets will not close this company down. Instead, SHAC directs activists’ anger, passion, and disgust at companies that HLS needs to survive—companies that don’t need HLS.
Over the past three years a laundry list of the world’s most significant financial institutions have withdrawn their investments from the lab. Scores of major pharmaceutical, agrochemical, and household product companies have canceled their contracts. Even the lab’s janitors, laundry service, and cafeteria suppliers have come under fire. These companies have found it obnoxious and disruptive to have protestors on the phone lines, in their email systems, occupying their boardrooms, and visiting the executives at night. The result has been that HLS has declined in value by 90 percent and teeters on the brink of collapse.
The SHAC campaign has widened the circle of targets more than any other animal rights group. Banks, insurance companies, auditors, and private investors have found themselves receiving the same sort of vitriolic attention as those who actually test on animals. SHAC has made it clear that anyone who touches HLS is fair game. This approach has made the idea of sponsoring, investing in, or providing services to the vivisection industry in any way far less palatable; whole new forms of personal accountability have been brought into play. Although focusing on one target, HLS, the reach of SHAC extends far beyond it.
Direct action in the SHAC campaign has also risen to new levels of intensity and frequency. Since 1999, nearly 80 percent of the ALF attacks that have taken place in the US and the UK have been aimed at closing down HLS. Hundreds upon hundreds of windows have been broken, red paint has been thrown on cars, stink and smoke bombs have cleared office towers (and several city blocks on one occasion), bomb hoaxes have ended business days early, buildings and cars in several countries have been torched, and bombs have been detonated outside some facilities. Never before has the ALF been so active towards the same goals as aboveground groups lawfully protesting.
Just as with Hillgrove, Consort, and the others, the effect has been overwhelming. HLS remains open at the time of this printing only because the British government has interceded twice to prevent the closure of the lab by offering both bank and insurance services when no other commercial company in the US or the UK would. This is unprecedented, and its historical significance cannot be overestimated; volunteer and grassroots activists, joined by the faceless men and women of the ALF, have forced the government of a major western power to show its hand in support of a single failing company.
The battle over HLS has become more than just the battle to close down one rather heinous animal testing lab. A line has been drawn in the sand between animal rights and animal research, and the battleground is Huntingdon Life Sciences. It is a winner-take-all scenario. The politicians, law enforcement agencies, and corporate overlords that pull the state’s puppet strings all recognize that when the SHAC campaign succeeds in closing HLS, any company could be next. Once activists get that taste for victory and understand the power that is theirs through direct action, they will not retreat. SHAC, and the campaigns that preceded it, are a menace to established forms of traditional activism in that they prove conclusively that not only does direct action work, but it can be compatible with lawful campaigns.
You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours
It must be said that the SHAC campaign does not run the ALF or have any sort of authority or control over their actions. SHAC has never solicited or funded a liberation or an act of economic sabotage. The relationship between a grassroots campaign approach and underground action developed organically, with both adhering to an unspoken but pragmatic utilization of each other’s efforts to maximize their own impact.
For SHAC, there has been no question as to how the campaign has benefited from the hard and fast actions of the underground. Companies under protest fire have made their decisions to sever ties with HLS that much more quickly when faced with underground action. One of the most frightening aspects of a demonstration or home protest is the question, “What if this is not where the action stops?” The presence of ALF activity in the campaign has caused a great deal of trepidation for anyone who lands on the SHAC radar screen.
The ALF have exploited the benefits of incorporating their actions within the confines of a large national campaign. Their actions carry far more weight when taken in conjunction with other protest activity than in isolation against random targets. Significantly, the ALF can count on SHAC to publicize and defend their actions. In SHAC, and typically in the grassroots of the movement, the ALF finds sympathetic advocates who are willing to step forward and help with jail and legal costs for those caught in illegal activities. SHAC has helped create this culture of direct action support by selling ALF T-shirts, posters, magazines, and pins. It has hosted ex-ALF activists as speakers and sponsored a cross-country speaking tour for a legendary UK ALF Press Officer.
The various ways that SHAC and the ALF play off each other are mutually beneficial to the cause of animal liberation. The uninvited, but not unwelcome, addition of ALF activity to SHAC’s efforts saw a mutually beneficial relationship develop. Both groups saw positive qualities in the other and used them in complementary ways to benefit the cause.
The Dreaded “T” Word
Does the combination of direct action by the ALF and unrelenting protest pressure from SHAC amount to “terrorism”? Yes and no. The campaign to close HLS is without question a concerted effort to strike fear into the hearts of those who criminally abuse animals. SHAC warns that those who support HLS in any way will be called to account for their actions. It warns that those who work at HLS should fear the loss of their jobs, humiliation within their community, and having any semblance of a comfortable life they have made for themselves off the backs of suffering animals callously stripped away.
The SHAC campaign seeks to recognize that this fight to close HLS is encompassed in a war for animal liberation, a battle in which the death toll on the side of the animals and their defenders grows daily. The SHAC campaign drives home the message that the animal rights movement is called a struggle for a reason, because it is a long, hard fight. It will take hard work, sacrifice, and sometimes doing things we are not comfortable doing in any other context. Whatever anxiety the animal abusers experience as a result of the campaign pales in comparison to the pain and horror the animals in Huntingdon suffer daily.
While the targets of direct action may be harassed and even traumatized, the actions are not terrorism in that innocents are not being targeted, only those “combatants” who are involved in the suffering of animals. Should those targeted not enjoy this personalized attention, it is their decision to end it whenever they wish by surrendering their violent profession. The ALF and SHAC are not flying planes into buildings or committing suicide bombings on crowded city buses, and it is an insult to those who have lost loved ones in real acts of terrorism to diminish cataclysmic events like 9/11 with comparisons to liberated dogs and paint-covered doorsteps. Far from being a terrorist attack, political direct action carried out by the ALF or SHAC follows in a noble tradition of social rebellion against prejudice and injustice.
History teaches us that all successful social justice movements have incorporated some aspects of direct action and tactics that seem unsavory and controversial. The animal rights movement cannot be locked away in a vacuum from the rest of this social justice history if we are to be successful. If protest and potlucks alone could win our cause then, by all means, these would be the avenues we should pursue. Reality teaches us a different lesson. Education, winning the hearts and minds of the general public, is of paramount importance, but in many circumstances, public opinion is difficult to organize and inform. For example, in the fight against pharmaceutical and university research on animals, public access to information is limited, and boycott campaigns have no main street products to target. In addition, a chief vulnerability of our opposition is their fear of personalized attention. In such circumstances, such as the case of Huntingdon Life Sciences, the immediate impact of direct action is not only appropriate, but essential.
Friend or Foe?
The “gloves off” approach to animal advocacy, championed by the ALF and campaigns like SHAC, has ruffled the feathers of many compatriots within the animal advocacy movement. Activists debate the “appropriateness” of certain tactics, and many fear losing the moral high ground in seeking to intimidate the opposition.
Such criticism of direct action and controversial ventures like SHAC is a speciesist insult to those animals who depend on humans to advocate on their behalf. If those opposed to direct action are really honest with themselves, they will have to admit that they do not believe the goal of animal liberation justifies the tactics they claim to oppose but would support in other contexts. Most people do support property destruction, violence, and murder for certain causes. If people in Liberia were being rendered for food, it would be a safe bet that most would support a war to end such an atrocity. If critics of the ALF and SHAC honestly faced the internalized prejudices that they harbor, and imagined that it was white, middle-class kindergartners from Kansas being pumped full of bleach or anally electrocuted, most would be ready to take up arms themselves. It is not children who are suffering and dying by the billions, however, but rather nonhuman animals, and only for that speciesist reason are certain tactics condemned as “terrorist” or taken off the table of discussion.
Those who may ethically support the ALF and the use of controversial means, but see it as a strategic mistake because of the negative impact on public opinion, have only themselves to blame. It is the failure of movement organizations and speakers to reframe the debate away from the tactic to the more substantive issues of animal exploitation. It is a tragic mistake and a setback for the animal rights movement to let the media determine our tactical agenda because of a fear of negative coverage. The actions of the ALF and SHAC play a crucial role in this movement and will not be stopped anytime soon, and if there does exist a problem with media portrayal it is well worth the effort of national groups to invest in becoming more media-savvy organizations.
Direct action has a crucial role to play in the animal advocacy movement, and when the mainstream can look past its fundraising worries, comfort levels, and personal speciesist biases, the opportunity to use the power of the ALF has great potential. The early campaigns of PETA working with the ALF direct action efforts against university vivisection labs proved this masterfully, as have the persistent Sea Shepherd campaigns against whaling and seal clubbing that combined lawful campaigning and illegal direct action. Today, SHAC is the intelligent and strategic continuation of such a rounded attack, effectively coupling both legal and illegal tactics.
When history is written about the animal rights movement, the notable exceptions that will stand out for their achievements will be those efforts that dared to risk scorn and controversy by embracing and/or spearheading cutting edge and radical activism.
1. The “SHAC campaign” has come to mean any endeavor aimed at contributing to the legal SHAC efforts, whether it be legal or not. In various legal proceedings we have distinguished SHAC the incorporated group as a news/information clearing house, and the “SHAC campaign” as all other protest activities.