The Power of Open Rescue

This article originally appeared in Satya: The Long View in December 2015 and has been reprinted here with permission. Since its publication, a new wave of open rescues has swept across North America, rendering some of my comments on the lack of information about the tactic as outdated. This is a welcome development. For a look at how different aspects of recent open rescues have been reported on by larger media outlets, see here, here, here, and here.

Aknock on the door wakes me up.

“Ronnie, you ready to go? It’s 12:30.”

Confused and clouded, I struggle to find my phone in the dark. It’s 12:27am. I still have three more minutes until my alarm goes off.

I lie back down — without a response — for another minute or two, waiting for my mind to calibrate itself to this odd waking hour, and for 12:30’s alarm to sound.

Ok, I thought, it’s time to get dressed.

After driving for a while, we pull off of the freeway and make some turns. Right and left. Left, left, and right. I look around at the long stretches of open fields, the streets with no cars, the few lights that decorate the tranquil and dark night. It’s pleasant here, nothing compared to the swarm of the city.

But then I think about the chicken sheds we’re about to enter. I think about the putrid and acrid smell that forces us to wear respiratory masks; the aching stench of sadness that these sensitive beings are made to endure their entire lives, from hatchery to grave; the suffocating press of bodies packed together in sealed-off packages boasting free-range fantasies.

The tranquility quickly wears off, and the uncomfortable reality of our task looms ahead.

We pulled into a little dead-end street and parked in a dark corner off the side of the road. The nearest building was at least 200 yards away. We shut off the headlights and sat for a while, letting our eyes adjust to the night and observe our surroundings.

This wasn’t our first time here. Collectively, we had been many times before in an effort to learn the location, the route, and routine, so that we could have a streamlined operation when it came to freeing the hens from these halls of horror.

Before we arrived, we had a clear set of roles for everyone involved. On this night, we had four total: one person to sit in the car with a walkie-talkie and monitor the roads from afar to make sure no one was coming; one to stay posted outside of the shed with a walkie-talkie to monitor any activity on the immediate property; and two of us to enter the buildings to investigate, document, and narrate the scenes.

After our eyes had adjusted and we had ensured our surroundings were clear, the three of us, with headlamps fixed and gloves on, headed out to climb the few barbed wire fences separating the condemned from the rest of the world.

When I first set out to investigate open rescue as a tactic in the animal rights movement, there wasn’t much information available. A few articles online and in books, some videos on YouTube, and a patchwork of oral stories told in activist circles. I was seeking advice that Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) could build off of in our work, as well as searching for a clear history that could be shared with the wider world.

Standing at the face of this information void, it became apparent that open rescue — a tactic in which activists enter animal abusing facilities without a mask, rescue animals, and voluntarily and publicly release images of the action afterwards — wasn’t as well known or widely executed as it should be. It had been evident in the conversations of DxE for some time that this was a powerful form of activism — a blend of industry investigation coupled with directly saving lives and relaying the animals’ stories to the public — yet it had been virtually absent from the U.S. animal rights movement except for a brief stint in the early 2000s, up until the introduction of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) in 2006.

Deirdre Sims holds a sick hen during an open rescue in Auckland, New Zealand 2012.

Wanting to learn more about open rescue’s history, I reached out to a friend who urged me to contact Deirdre Sims in New Zealand (“she would be an invaluable resource,” he assured me). Deirdre’s group, New Zealand Open Rescue (NZ Open Rescue), was founded by her and some like-minded friends who wanted to bring the inspiring and cutting-edge strategy of their Australian neighbors (Patty Mark and Animal Liberation Victoria, the pioneers of open rescue) to New Zealand.

Before NZ Open Rescue’s launch in 2006, activists in New Zealand had been campaigning against factory farming for a while, but, as Deirdre told me, they felt as if they “had hit a wall in advocating for factory farmed animals.” Deirdre explained, “The media was bored with seeing masked people raiding battery hen sheds, the industries easily dismissed us as troublesome and marginal activists and the public couldn’t relate to us.”

Searching for ways to overcome this strategic impasse, Deirdre and a small group of friends decided to plan an open rescue. Their first rescue was of 20 battery hens at Turks Poultry Farm. It proved extremely successful on multiple fronts: not only did they save 20 important lives, but, as Deirdre noted, since they were open about their identities, “for the first time we were able to speak to the media directly about our motivations for taking this type of action. We were able to elevate the argument to an ethical debate about saving lives versus stealing property.”

She emphasized, “We had a face, so we could directly combat the industry.”

A piece of beige carpet slung over the top of the barbed wire saved us from puncturing our hands and feet as we hopped over. One by one, we scaled the meager fence, helping to steady each other as we jumped down to the other side. We kept our headlamps off for the most part to avoid drawing unwanted attention and instead accepted the moon’s generous offer of light to guide us along.

Based on the time I was here a few months before, I had learned the route and was quite comfortable with it. This time, however, we noticed a peculiar difference when we approached the final fence. Where there was once a clear path of dirt, now stood a thick wall of overgrown reeds that were impossible to see beyond. We searched around for a minute trying to determine another path in, but concluded that there wasn’t one.

So we had to go through them.

The goal of an open rescue, Deirdre shared with me, as opposed to its covert counterpart, “is to show our humanity, emotion and motivations.” It is precisely the openness of open rescue that makes it such a powerful tactic. Unmasked, activists with publicly relatable faces, voices, and body language shine a light on the violence these industries thrive on and strive to shroud in total darkness. The motivations and folks behind the actions, once having been laid bare to the public, invite sympathy not only for the terrorized and terrified animals, but also for the activists themselves — breaking down the barrier between “ ‘extreme animal rights activists’ and the ordinary public,” she explained. Once this point of identification between the public and open rescue activists is established, it makes it easier to understand why one would go beyond the bounds of law to save these captive animals from a lifetime of pain and misery. A relatable face provides a point of leverage that the activists can pivot on — to their and the animals’ advantage — when dealing with media.

“Our passion and genuine motivations always shone through in all our media interviews, so we were very difficult to demonize,” Deirdre noted.

And this point can’t be stressed enough. Upon watching NZ Open Rescue’s videos, the media would have to engage in a certain level of alchemy to transform the image of considerate, intelligent activists from one of morally-motivated objectors into skulking terrorists bent on destruction. As evidenced by their 2008 Mother’s Day action video, Deirdre and her comrades move and speak with sensitivity and grace as they investigate and save piglets from a farm, creating a natural buffer to any such demonization.

Avoiding demonization is also helpful when up against potential legal consequences. Showing one’s face openly and publicizing information voluntarily about the rescues, again, make it difficult for prosecutors and the courts to cast activists doing open rescues as terrorists.

In an open rescue, animals are freed from truly miserable and depressing facilities with utmost care to ensure that inanimate property is not damaged in the process. It is clear, from both the actions and words of the activists, that delivering the animals to safety and documenting their dreadful living conditions are the principle motivations and goals — not destruction. Many of the animals who are removed are sick, injured, and on the brink of death. A strong case can be made that, without activist intervention and proper veterinary care, these animals would have died and have become mere “disposable property.”

Even with this safeguard in place, Deirdre was unequivocal about recognizing open rescue as “risky work.” She said that “going onto properties is dangerous,” as “many farmers have guns in their homes. . . and the risk of ending up with convictions for burglary is real.” Deirdre emphasized that after their first open rescue, where they saved 20 hens at Turks Poultry Farm, their media spokesperson, Mark Eden, was arrested and convicted for burglary.

She advised, “However, as open rescue activists you must partake knowing this may happen” and be prepared for it. If properly prepared, activists can also use their arrests to further the goals of open rescue. “We used Mark’s trial as a way to get more media about the plight of battery hens so it actually worked to our advantage,” she said.

The line of logic goes like this: more media exposure equals more public exposure to the initial investigation, more exposure to the ethics behind the activists, and most importantly, more exposure to the faces and stories of the animals lost in the machines of human violence.

Just beyond the overgrown reeds was the first shed. As we got closer, I could begin to hear the faint sound of birds rustling around and somberly clucking. The sheds were immense. It took us a good 30 seconds of brisk walking along the length of a shed, which was about the size of a football field, to get to the middle pathway, which acted as the central road connecting the whole facility. As we stood at the edge of this road, the immensity of the operation struck me again. The first shed was merely one of dozens that stretched out as far as the night would permit me to see. Each individual shed had rows and rows of dust-choked corridors that confined thousands of chickens who would never see the world outside those walls.

It was equally absurd and astonishing to me that this massive facility packed with warehouses full of prisoners could be the same small, ‘certified humane’ farm displayed on the cartons of eggs I’ve seen so often at Whole Foods. The image on the cartons flaunts the farm as a bright green field with chickens roaming the rolling hillsides with not a care in the world. It is a place you would want to visit; a place to relax with the chickens and watch the golden sun set…

Judy’s Family Farm (owned by Petaluma Egg Farm) portrayed as an idyllic haven for hens, which led to a false-advertising lawsuit brought about by the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Judy’s Family Farm — the reality. (Screenshot from Google Maps).

Tonight we decided to investigate a different shed, which, like all the others we’ve gone into before, was unlocked. Nearly every account I’ve read of activists entering factory farms has mentioned this important detail. Unlocked doors free one of any arduous tampering, thereby simplifying the process of moving in and spiriting away animals to safety.

Before dreams of safety could be realized though, we first had to enter a nightmare of living horror. The din of loud fans and other whirring machinery spilled out upon opening that shed door, all of which droned on tirelessly and nearly drowned out the sad voices of thousands of confined chickens. The stench of ammonia from the piles of shit caked on the ground burned my nose through my respiratory mask. The sight of layers of chickens cramped together — featherless, bleeding, sore-ridden, gasping for any clean air — brought tears to my eyes.

Perches, which ran through the length of the shed, were presumably there as a haven from the floor of filth. Yet so many chickens were packed into these corridors that the sick and weak were either forced to suffer underneath the weight of the others on the perch, or to languish in the mounds of excrement on the floor below (with more periodically being deposited on top of them).

My role here was to video these conditions, to capture what life is like living in this never ending toxic prison. Each time I crouched down to focus shots on their faces, I felt an overwhelming sensation that is hard to describe. It was a sense of depression and guilt; depression, knowing that most of them will never escape, destined to die in this waking nightmare. Guilt, knowing that my privilege as a human allows me to come and go freely.

It was also in this moment, as I focused my shot on a little ill hen who was struggling for breath, making pleas to the empty air for help, that speciesism became real to me. No longer was it the billions of abstract animals suffering in unheard of places across the world. Speciesism was here. Speciesism was her real and visceral suffering. Speciesism was her life being emptied from her body, leaving her to die at the hands of human supremacy, terrified and unknown.

For those who wish to participate in open rescue, Deirdre offered some advice. First and foremost, “think about the type of laws you may have in your country [or state] and how they would impact you doing this sort of work.” Consequently, she counseled, “choose your tactics wisely. . . If open rescue isn’t an option in your country, get creative and think up other methods.”

For those where open rescue proves possible, she advised, “find yourself a good team of skilled people you know and trust. Be prepared to be putting your own money into camera gear, travel, and accommodation.”

Furthermore, she suggested researching where the farms are, who owns them and the facility’s history. Think about how to tie a rescue or investigation into the bigger picture of current affairs, such as animal welfare legislation, an upcoming election or a campaign against in vogue corporate and cultural trends.

A final and crucial piece of advice from Deirdre: establish a place of refuge for the rescued animals before taking them. “Develop good networks and relationships with sanctuaries and individuals who are able to provide suitable homes for the animals you rescue. Don’t overburden these people with animals; respect their limitations no matter how urgently you want to get animals out.”

With that in mind, she concluded, “stay safe at all times and respect your teammates. This is stressful and emotional work and nothing can be achieved without a cohesive team.”

Though we had safe havens already in place for to-be-rescued hens, this particular night we weren’t planning on taking anyone with us. We were there simply to investigate and gather ample documentary footage for a later video release. We planned on spending an hour or two going through a couple of sheds and returning to our beds before the first light of the next day.

But when we came upon a hen splayed on the floor, barely conscious and too weak to move near food or water, our consciences compelled us to deviate from our planned course.

She was dying. She was suffering beyond imagining. And she would have slowly languished there until death, on the toxic floor, had we not decided to take her.

Through the walkie-talkies we confirmed with the others that we couldn’t leave her behind. She was coming home with us.

Mei Hua’s recovery was nothing short of a miracle. By all symptoms and signs, when we first found her immobile on the shed floor, she was going to die. When we brought her to a local veterinary clinic at the first opening in the morning, we were given a fatal prognosis by the doctor and urged to euthanize her for her own good.

A gloved hand cradles Mei Hua after finding her splayed out and dying on the farm floor.

“She’s suffering immensely,” he told us, “and there’s little hope for recovery. She has head trauma, she’s dehydrated, and she can hardly breathe.” If you prolong her life, he warned us, you will only cause her more pain.

Yet, we weren’t ready to give up so easily. As dire as his words were, we had a duty to do everything we could to give her a chance at life.

So we sought second opinions, and then third opinions, from folks who had considerable experience in chicken rehabilitation. We drove Mei across the Bay Area to the home of one of our friends for her to examine. After looking at her condition, she told us that it’d be tough, but with proper care we could get her back to health. “It’s going to take a little tender loving care, but she’ll make it” she told us, smiling.

Over the course of a few weeks, TLC is exactly what Mei Hua received. A few days into her rehabilitation, Mei was still unable to eat or drink on her own. If a dish of food or water was set in front of her, her head would slump over and fall into it. She didn’t have the strength or the spatial awareness to peck with precision like healthy chickens. But through regular feedings with a syringe and subcutaneous injections of fluid, Mei slowly regained her ability to eat and drink on her own.

Soon enough, she recovered the strength to walk and used her curious legs to explore the open, fresh air and sunshine of her newfound environment — something she had never experienced before.

She was finally free.

A recovered, healthy Mei Hua dust bathes at her new sanctuary home.

If we hadn’t decided to go into that farm on that dreary night, Mei would be dead. If we hadn’t decided to go back into that farm again, on another grey night, another hen, Sephy, would be dead as well. If Deirdre and NZ Open Rescue hadn’t decided to go into those farms over many cold and painful nights, all of those animals would be dead, too.

Thankfully, we have the power to tell a different story. Activists from all walks of life — guided by the light of compassion and empathy — are showing the world that the lives of animals matter. Hidden and silenced for far too long, the stories of animals are beginning to emerge from inside factory farms and slaughterhouse walls, penetrating the global conscience, and threatening to shake the very foundations that have served to imprison, maim, and murder them. The corporate veils used by companies like Whole Foods to cover and recast these atrocities as human benevolence are being exposed for what they are, and what they always have been: unspeakable violence.

As humans who have exploited animals since time immemorial, we owe it to them to finally heal this ancient wound. It’s time to turn the tide.

Top image: Activists rescue Mei Hua from a farm at night. Screenshot from short documentary film, TRUTH MATTERS: DXE INVESTIGATORS EXPOSE “HUMANE” FRAUD AT WHOLE FOODS.