One day while walking on a New York sidewalk, a couple stopped in front of me and embraced. I noticed that as the woman held her partner, she peered over his shoulder, with her eyes affixed to the reflection that they cast in a large plate glass window adjacent to where they stood.
I changed my path and made an effort not to walk between the couple and their reflection in the window. It seemed as if the woman wanted nothing more than to capture this reflection and emotional embrace in her memory. Who was I to stand—metaphorically (and literally)—in the way of that?
Their Moment Triggered Something in Me
Walking past that couple on the sidewalk triggered me to reflect on my own cherished memories. Some memories were obvious in their bliss—like the day I got married, or the day my son was born—but others were more nuanced and I spent the rest of the evening considering those. Until that moment I had never considered that some of my most profound memories have been bottled up, never to leave my lips for fear of state actors holding me accountable.
I began to feel like a bloated water balloon, still affixed to a running tap: bursting was inevitable, and I was already leaking…
One day shortly thereafter I was taking my son and our dog Morgan for a walk to the park. Morgan’s eyes are starting to glaze over with age, and it’s only in a vast open field at the rear of the park that I let her off her leash. In the field she does not have any risk of running into anything and every time I unhook her leash, she dashes off, running as fast as she can, usually in a giant figure eight pattern. On this day she did the same but unexpected to me, in that very moment, seeing her run free and unhinged my balloon popped. I found myself crying and adrift in a whirlwind of emotions.
I thought to myself of just how many days I spent talking about negative things (state repression, court cases) or reciting bewildering and often disheartening statistics about human consumption of animals, and just how few days I spent talking about freedom, about liberation, and about this beautiful and deeply spiritual idea of animals as individuals.
I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on some of these individuals.
Renee was a rhesus macaque monkey. Renee had spent 11 years in confinement, her health was ailing, and her future uncertain. She was never experimented upon, but rather was listlessly awaiting experiments at another facility. I sat for two hours in a thunderstorm before jumping the gates to the compound where she was held and bringing her to sanctuary.
Every year I think about Renee. I’ll never forget how Renee, despite being in an animal carrier, still managed to tear up the back seat of my mother’s car. I’ll never forget about how her prolonged poor health rendered her barren, and I’ll never forget about how her inherent desire to be a mother made her the perfect guardian for an infant monkey who ended up at her sanctuary a year later. I’ll never forget this selflessness in Renee. Renee gave something priceless to that little monkey and moreover, years later she would give me something priceless.
Alice was born at a breeder for vivisection and lived for six months in a holding pen for reserve research animals, en route to testing facilities. I opened Alice’s pen and carried her to safety. I had to run over a mile and a half with Alice before reaching our exit vehicle and while I was running, Alice threw up on me. Before getting in the car with Alice I put her down. I saw her sway and then land on her side. She was motionless for nearly a minute. In this moment of desperately trying to understand what was happening to Alice my comrades and I began to yell at each other. We fumbled to find her pulse; we thought the worst and my friend to my right began to cry. Then, almost as fast as she fell down, she sprang back up, wagged her tail and licked me in the face. We would later learn that Alice had an ailment that impacted her equilibrium, but would ultimately live a long, happy and healthy life.
This was the first time in Alice’s life she felt anything other than concrete under her feet. It was overwhelming for both her and us, because in that moment we both received something very special.
Oscar was also born into a facility that bred waterfowl for vivisection. Oscar would have but six months before he would end up on a necropsy table, unless someone interceded. It only made sense to intercede.
In our months of advance recognizance, we took notice of Oscar. He had a limp, one leg was shorter than the other, and he was only partially covered with his plumage. He was at a disadvantage from the peers with which he shared his installation, yet we’d watch as every night he and a dozen others would pile together to keep warm. On the night when we freed Oscar from his confines, he rode on a truck with hundreds of those peers.
Our trip was nerve-racking. We hoped to reach the sanctuary by sunrise. The temperature outside was in the 50s but the back of the truck was 80 degrees and climbing. Every stop we made to open the back of the truck to allow cool air in was another risk of being caught and every moment above 80 degrees was another risk to the safety of the birds inside. When we arrived, the walls of the truck were wet with condensed sweat.
We met the sanctuary owner. The man was a saint, and I felt guilty that he actually thought my name was Holden Caulfield. He led us to where we could unload our friends, an adapted Quonset Hut reminiscent of a miniature airplane hanger with a greenhouse top and an exit to an adjacent field and pond.
Oscar’s friends, in a brilliant chorus of noise and motion, ran en masse toward the pond and dove in. It was so brilliant, it almost felt choreographed. But I quickly became concerned and asked the sanctuary owner if the transition from a hot truck to the cold waters of a Pacific Northwest pond were dangerous. He acknowledged these concerns and suggested we wade out into the pond and begin clapping our hands to wrangle our friends back in. Slowly, they made their way from the pond back to the warmth of the hanger, shaking the water off in what looked like celebratory dancing, but then we saw Oscar…
Oscar was stumbling on himself and his breathing was erratic. He was not shaking the water off.
We dried Oscar with towels and moved him to an adjacent warm space by himself. We wanted him to feel safe; we wanted him to feel loved; we wanted him to recover from whatever shock he was experiencing, but he did not. Oscar died that afternoon.
I have never been able to forgive my recklessness of that day. But I also know I will never be able to capture in words the awe of seeing Oscar and his friends celebrate their first day of freedom. Oscar and each of his friends gave me lasting inspiration and insight into the very act of being alive and free.
This is a Thank You Letter
This is a letter to Renee, to Alice, to Oscar and to the 281 other beings I removed from abuse. In freeing you I learned things not only about you, but also about myself. I learned that fear of repression for what many consider my criminal acts, although tangible and real, is only as strong as you allow it to be. I learned that giving an individual a new option for a new future—one free of abuse—is not only liberating for those freed, but also for those doing the freeing, and this feeling stays with you, forever.
Years later I, too, would find myself in a cage, incarcerated for my tenure as a radical activist. And while prison is an overwhelming and at times terrorizing experience, I found myself when there calling upon my memories of the efforts I made to free others. I found something comforting there, something that made me realize that those days when I restored someone else’s freedoms were the freest days of my life. No matter how large or how small, each of these individual situations mattered…
The Analogy of The Star Fish Thrower
Many of us have heard, or shared the story of the starfish thrower, iterated in one way or another at some point in our lives. (The tale of a wise man who observed and wrote about the world, and his interaction with a child who, as the tide receded and the day sun rose, worked tirelessly to throw stranded starfish back into the ocean.) The wise man asked…
“But young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The young man promptly picked up another starfish to throw into the ocean and politely responded…
“It made a difference for that one!”
How to Say Thank You
April 20th, 2014 is marked as the beginning of World Week for Animals in Laboratories. It is also a day the global animal liberation movement uses to remember the liberation of Britches the Monkey, a stump-tailed macaque who was taken from his mother at birth and had his eyes sown shut as part of a maternal deprivation study at the University of California, Riverside. On April 20th, 1985 the Animal Liberation Front freed Britches from his cage, removed the sutures that held his eyes shut, and brought him to a loving home where he could live out the rest of his life in peace.
As World Week for Animals in Laboratories approaches there will be conversations about tactics, presentations with overwhelming statistics, street protests and report-backs on so many amazing efforts to derail systems of abuse. There will also be conversations on repression, informants, and attempts by the state to stifle our already amazingly successful efforts.
And although state repression is very real, let this letter serve as a reminder that state repression is only as strong as you allow it to be.
In rescuing Renee, Alice and Oscar, every lock I broke, every cage I opened, unshackled me from the specter of state repression. This is the reason why I was crying while at the park with my son and my dog: because I saw this moment where Morgan shed her leash and became unhinged, and I briefly felt it with her.
This letter is not a call to take illegal direct action, but rather a call to challenge the boundaries of your own comfort in an effort to free others, because it matters “to that one” and because it’s there that we begin to unwrap the binds that confine each of us.
I invite you to join me in taking a leap of faith, and to empower yourself individually to shed your own shackles.
Renee, Alice, and Oscar, the individuals they are, and their passage to freedom has forever changed my life. In challenging my own comfort, something transformative happened to me.
To Renee, Alice, Oscar and the 281 other animals I rescued from abuse,
I say Thank you.