When Saving Animals From Torture is Illegal

The Animal Liberation Front has long remained on the FBI’s list of domestic terrorists for…saving animals? Why?

Photo by Jacqueline Hardy via pixy.org. Remix by editor.

Imagine this:

In the dead of night, building edges lit only by the moon high in the sky, whispers start to fill the stagnant air outside of an animal testing facility. Sounds of strategy permeate the silent air while flashlights begin to cut through the darkness made worse by the shadowy structures that flank the laboratory.

Suddenly, large crashes of metal bent and glass breaking upon the impact of a hammer envelope whatever whispers that managed to saturate the air previously; and in a moment, they are in.

With ski masks illuminated by only the concentrated blaze of flashlights that change their trajectory with every movement, the agents dressed in all black begin storming the building. Coordinating their effort, one charged by the fire of months of careful planning, the perpetrators begin the rescue.

Inside this laboratory, dozens of macaques, an old-world species of primate, are being used in research to determine neural function as a proxy for supposed translatable knowledge to human beings. Here, the animals are hooked up to wires, some of which are implanted directly into their brain, and tested day after day for months or years, with no release often until they are no longer needed and are terminated. Killed.

Assisting their rescue from this concrete hellscape, an independent cell of the Animal Liberation Front, or the ALF, have broken into this, and many other, facilities across the world. In the name of liberating feeling beings from immense suffering inflicted upon their bodies in the name of human advancement, or more aptly, greed, this group has taken to tactics of property destruction and direct action.

Tuning Into the Movement

This account of animal salvation is fictional, somewhat, as I pieced it together from what I have gathered as a typical operation carried out by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). This assemblage of people all over the world have been called radical, dangerous, and have been on the FBI’s list of domestic terrorist groups for a while among, as it should be noted, militia terrorist groups and white supremacist terrorist groups.

The ALF has maintained the label of “radical” for so long as it clearly opposes a form of oppression, namely the exploitation of animal bodies, that seems so commonplace in modern culture. Their labeling of radical, stemming from their moral positions that exist on the edges of common concern, is often solidified by their use of direct action to do something about injustice.

What I find so interesting about the public image of the ALF is that most people, upon asking them, will tell you that animal exploitation is wrong. So why is this group so subversive and radical in the face of the current culture? I believe that the issue is much deeper. So many people oppose the ALF’s tactics not because they believe animal exploitation is okay. Usually, as I said, they believe the opposite. The public, and our federal investigative counterparts, find the ALF so distasteful because they place us face to face with our own commonplace mistreatment of animals. Like that chicken sandwich you just got through the drive-thru.

Organizing Without a Leader

Characterizing the ALF, and what makes its presence uneasy perhaps, is how they operate in independent cells across the world, also known as leaderless resistance. This location-based modus operandi is nothing new but it is seemingly effective as a tactic, especially when mass action is not possible in the face of a culture that is set against your beliefs.

The basic premise of leaderless resistance is that motivated individuals, or very small groups, operate to effect change locally; that is, the ALF is more of an ideology or movement that its adherents operate on in their local spaces.

In his book, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, Dave Foreman, a name in the Earth Liberation Front (a sister group to the ALF), states that leaderless resistance “is not organized” as it would “invite infiltration, provocateurs, and repression” (pg. 118). The ALF operates in the shadows, that is until their targets are approached and directly acted upon. A clandestine nature like this leads to obvious feelings and aversion to groups such as these which I believe inevitably contributes to their status as “radical.”

Tactics like these, of apparent secrecy, create an air of mystique among the group, one that says members of the Animal Liberation Front could be your doctor, the woman who sells you peaches at the farmer’s market, or even your brother who has recently taken up veganism. Anyone might have a ski mask and bolt cutters in their sock drawer.

Photo by stuarthampton via pixabay. Remix by editor.

Destroying Property is Not “Violent”

Or, at least is a very benign sort. Here’s what I mean.

Another reason as to why the ALF carries the name of radicalism is the fact that they participate in property destruction as a matter of saving animals from suffering. These acts have been part of the reasoning as to why many people have labeled the group as violent. But, I ask, violent against what?

As a matter of what violence is, you cannot be violent against something that is not, at the very least, living; which is to say, breaking into laboratories, trashing the place, maybe even setting objects on fire, is by definition nonviolent, no matter how uncomfortable it seems. Violence only enters the equation once a being is deliberately hurt, and for the most part, the ALF ideology prohibits this as it is counter to liberation theories.

To say that the ALF is particularly violent is to say that property damage is violence, which I do not believe that it is. What is violent, however, is what animals are enduring day after day in factory farms and laboratories around the world. No matter the justification, their use requires that pain be directly inflicted on a sentient being. The contrast is stark.

The ALF is seen as violent, and radical because it seeks to save animals using methodologies that sometimes include property destruction as a tactic. What is not seen as violence though, to the general public and the law, is the protection of inanimate objects like labs and farms, and what goes on inside them to animals. The difference here is that real violence protects the animals as property whereas mislabeled violence protects animals as beings.

Cognitive Dissonance is Deadly

In addition to a lack of actual violence, avoiding cognitive dissonance is where I see the actions, or at least the motivations, of the ALF to be particularly non-radical.

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the theory that when a person holds two competing beliefs they will change one or both beliefs in an attempt to bring about consonant cognitions, or consistency in thought or action. I argue that most people experience this with the treatment of animals; that is, they believe that it wrong to hurt animals, but simultaneously justify eating them and testing on them, or wearing the products made from their bodies, which often require pain and suffering.

I use this to describe why I believe that the motivations of the ALF are not radical, per se, but rather their actions, which could be radical, are just the natural behavioral progression of the belief that animals should not suffer at our hands. If you think that it is wrong to hurt animals, it should follow that you cannot support their raising and kill for your supposed need (which in most cases is rather suspect). This belief drives the action of so many animal liberationists that are then arrested and sentenced to years in prison: they match their values, which I think many people hold, to their actions.

Aim High, Land Low

In many instances, liberationists of any kind are not acting on altogether foreign, radical beliefs. The action that is seen to be most effective at grounding change is where the public image problems arise. As a movement, the Animal Liberation Front does not represent some fringe ideology; as with their action though, they might. But, how much does this really matter?

In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, author Roy Scranton explains how the peaceful social movements that we know of with labor unions and civil rights were categorically allowable only in contrast to the violent, and often bloody, protests that occurred before on similar ideological premises (pg. 71).

Both civil and uncivil sides of any movement operate on the same belief, they just differ in tactic. The fundamental difference between those who are willing to take up arms on behalf of animals, and those who are not, is that the liberationists merely remain consistent in belief and action. And sometimes, glass is broken, metal is bent, and buildings are burned down.

writer. illustrator. manic collector of pens and notebooks. bug guy from North Carolina. see my work at www.nthnljms.com

Sign up for Pollinate

By Pollen

A weekly digest of what is new with your favorite eco-mag, Pollen!  Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Get the Medium app