Monday, September 06, 2004

Animal Rights Extremists Meet in England

In camp with the animal rights zealots
By Oliver Poole
(Filed: 06/09/2004)

As smoke curled up from evening campfires in front of scruffy tents, a middle-aged woman was offering cups of herbal tea. The sound of an acoustic guitar drifted across the field and softly-spoken young people were chatting about their favourite acts at the recent Glastonbury Festival.
"Isn't it lovely here?" one camper said. "There's so much love being generated."
A few yards away, a group gathered round a fallen tree for a workshop led by an instructor in a ragged black T-shirt.
They might, from afar, have been learning a form of oriental exercise but, when the instructor could be heard, there was nothing gentle or meditative about his message: "If you feel threatened you must deliver short punches in key areas. Forget the shoulders and legs, aim for the eyes, nose, neck and kidneys.
"Start with the eyes and deliver short jabs, or you can perform an eye gouge."
His audience gave a ripple of polite applause, then leaned towards him for the next lesson, billed as "Basic Self-Defence - learn how to protect yourself from animal abusers".
This tranquil-looking camp among the apple orchards of Kent was organised not for love and peace but as a training centre for 350 animal rights activists who had travelled from as far away as America to a small animal sanctuary near the village of East Peckham.
The International Animal Rights Conference 2004 was the event from which David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, had banned Dr Jerry Vlasak - the American campaigner alleged to have said there was "moral justification" in using violence and even murder against researchers who use animals.
Despite the undertone of violence - the weekend had been labelled an "animal rights terrorist training camp" - those present seemed doggedly, overwhelmingly middle-class. Genial, polite, concerned to be seen doing the right thing and sipping constantly at the lashings of tea always on offer.
Vivaldi was playing in the battered blue Fiat that picked up a group of attendees, including me, at Tonbridge station to drive to the gathering's secret location.
Special mediators had been appointed, we were told, to try to defuse any particularly virulent political or ethical discussions.
Then there was the subject matter of the two dozen workshops and meetings, intended to enable those present to "prepare and make mistakes in a safe environment".
The workshops included lessons on "working undercover" and "climbing, roping and tripods". There were seminars on using surveillance cameras, tips for dealing with the police after an arrest - and then a yoga class with Tai Chi.
Among those present were a few dreadlocked crusties, a smattering of terrifying goths from Germany and a vast majority of mainly female, well-educated 20-somethings. Everyone was deeply paranoid about the presence of undercover police and (worryingly) journalists.
I heard of no secret plans to firebomb laboratories or beat up scientists, though I kept clear of the most intimidating characters who prowled the area, their passage followed by admiring glances from most of those present.
Yet the stated desire of everyone was to prove their love of animals by actively attacking those people and institutions judged "cruel".
There seemed to be a competitive ambition to be arrested, and those who had been wore their martyrdom with pride.
Sitting on the grass amid the tents, a girl chatted with her friend Andrew about ways to stop the Government's cull of badgers. They were discussing tips passed down from one of the older activists: don't use computers or telephones, avoid high-tech gadgets, never use your own vehicle, don't trust old friends, get fit to escape policemen.
The conversation then turned to which bands they had most enjoyed at Glastonbury.
I wondered if they ever felt guilty that the actions of animal rights protesters often made their targets' lives a misery. "What can you do?" she answered. "The animals are suffering and how can any of us do nothing to help them."
But what made them so certain that their targets deserved their mistreatment? The girl looked at me, a trace of suspicion in her eyes at such a strange question. "Because they're evil," she said.