AUSCHWITZ FOR THE CHICKENS
Last week the Animal Liberation Front
released 1,000 mink in Hampshire. Dhiren Bhagat
accompanied an ALF raid to save broiler hens
THE day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be aban- doned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of legs, the vinosity of the skin, or the termination of the as sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuper- able line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is, beyond compari- son, a more rational as well as a more conversable animal than an infant of a day, a week, or even a month old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
THAT was Bentham in his Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), one of the first and certainly the most eloquent defence of the rights of animals in the Western world. But it wasn't Bentham's logic, rather a verse of Peter Porter's, that first set me thinking of the fate of animals when I was a callow 15-year-old who ate meat and visited dis- cotheques:
London is full of chickens on electric spits, Cooking in windows where the people pass. This, say the chickens, is their Auschwitz And all poultry eaters are psychopaths.
A few years after reading that I turned vegetarian for a number of reasons: reli- gious, ethical, aesthetic, hygienic. Porter's lines ceased to rebuke me and I forgot them. Three weekends ago the strange lines came back to me, kept running through my brain as I accompanied the masked members of the B group of Merseyside Animal Liberation Front to observe them steal 30 chickens in the middle of the night from an unguarded broiler farm near Chester. I concede that the truth of our times is simultaneously grim and comic, but the comedy doesn't lighten the grimness, only makes it grotes- que. When the co-ordinator had finally prised open a filter of one of the sheds with a hammer and screwdriver he invited me to
climb the wall and look in: I saw thousands and thousands of chickens, fat, crammed hens really, squawking away, tightly pack- ed together, falling over each other in an attempt to get to the drinking water, stinking. 'Here, wear my gloves so you don't leave any fingerprints behind.' This, say the chickens, is their Auschwitz. . . .
The first time I went up to Liverpool to observe a raid my contact — an unem- ployed young Welsh girl with a degree in sociology from Bradford — met me at the station and apologised. 'I tried your num- ber in London, I'm sorry, the raid's been called off. The police took in some of our people yesterday. Next weekend should be okay.'
The following Saturday I went back to Liverpool. She was there at the station again. She would come to the Adelphi to collect me at five. We took a bus to Sefton Park. What was the programme? 'Don't worry, you'll be told later this evening, I imagine.' We must have waited for at least 45 minutes by the statue of Eros in front of the shut park café when a young bearded man in jeans came along. He handed the girl a note and took me away.
We got on another bus. 'Sorry about all this James Bond stuff but the Merseyside unit is very good on security. The co- ordinator is very suspicious, I don't think he trusts me either. He'll probably vet you this evening.' My escort was unemployed but had worked in the past as a film projectionist. 'Can't really work now, I'm a single parent.' Did he go on raids? 'Can't, have the kid to think of. A lot of people think the ALF does glamorous work. I can tell you there's nothing glamorous about standing all night in a wet field.'
We got down at the end of the Speke Industrial Estate. We were at the edge of Liverpool, there were no more buildings beyond this, the sky was broad and low. Past a pub — called, appropriately enough, the Dove and Olive Branch — we took a footpath through a field of tall dry grass.
It was a small stone cottage, untidy and rather basic. The loo was in the outhouse, a much used commode stuffed with wads of wet pink toilet paper. There were several posters of Marc Bolan on the walls, a cancer appeal for the Bradford Lord Mayor's Appeal Fund and stickers with inscriptions like FUR COATS ARE SECOND HAND RIP-OFFS. I went up to the bedroom to meet the co-ordinator.
He was in his late twenties, wore tight, faded jeans, a combat jacket with a hood, white wool gloves and army boots. A dark scarf masked his face. Born and brought up in Liverpool, he had left his comprehensive at 16, done four 0 levels at a college of further education by the time he was 18 and then spent three and a half years in the Army. The Army? 'If you leave a College of FE at 18 you've missed the boat for apprenticeships. You can learn a skill in the Army. And after the Army you tend to get preferential treatment from em- ployers.' He had: he was an electrician and worked in 'private industry'.
He was a Catholic. Irish or English? 'I'm not going to answer that question,' he said gruffly, the only sour note in our acquaint- ance. He had been brought up on a council estate, along with two sisters and three brothers. His father had a white-collar job in local government, his mother had once done an office job for the council but had since been made redundant. She had al- ways voted Labour, his father had Liberal sympathies. They both spoke warmly of Ted Heath. 'If my father sees whales being killed on television he is appalled, goes and makes a donation. My mother too supports things like Greenpeace, both of them send money.' He hadn't told them of his ALF activities, not because they would dis- approve but because secrecy was vital and `they're only human after all'.
What were his own politics? He was a bit evasive. An anarchist? 'Definitely not an anarchist or a communist. I don't regard them as people who have anything to say.' Did he think the vote was of any use? He laughed. 'In Britain at this point in time we can change things through Parliament. The whale products did get banned in 1980. But when you're faced with multinationals there is little that government can do. Things are getting worse, the little com- panies are getting bought by the large multinationals and as time goes on your chances of changing things through legisla- tion are getting smaller.' Surely direct action could only make a very small differ- ence? 'I regard the ALF as a catalyst not only for animal rights but for all kinds of liberation movements.'
Till two years ago he used to stand on street corners, getting people to sign peti- tions, distributing leaflets. One Sunday morning, doing his rounds with the leaf- lets, he walked into a battery farm. 'The door was open and for the first time I saw the inside of a battery unit. There were hundreds of heads poking out, five chick- ens to a tiny cage and rows and rows of cages. Their feathers were missing, beaks were missing.'
Within a few months he had formed the Merseyside ALF. There were, in all, five groups: A, B, C, D, and E, each with eight members. C group is the intelligence unit, the middle-class ones with a plausible manner who do the reconnaissance posing as birdwatchers, always in couples, often with a dog. The rest liberate animals. Members of one group do not know members of other groups. On Sundays they train in woodland around dawn doing military-style physical exercises, crossing obstacles and learning to cut wires. Peace News recently accused them of setting up a paramilitary organisation.
The next night I went back to the house to wait for the raiders. Messages kept coming in on the CB radio. 'We've just heard that you're okay, no one's followed you.' (There is a set of euphemistic words that prevents others listening in from get- ting suspicious: members are 'friends', the birds `goods' and I was 'the guest'. In Yorkshire, though, the concern for secur- ity is such that they keep scaling down CB channels every five minutes.) I waited for hours. The co-ordinator finally showed up and explained they were going to nick 30 chickens. Homes had been found for each one of them, as is standard practice. The birds would be taken initially to a homing unit near Liverpool where sympathetic vets would examine them, then be taken to their new homes.
We left some time after two. The co- ordinator apologised for the delay. Some- one had banged one van earlier that day, another vehicle had a broken fan belt, a third wouldn't start. So we had to make do with what there was, a not very reliable van they had resorted to in desperation.
It creaked. The co-ordinator sat in front, a girl drove. I sat behind with a dog and a new recruit and was asked to keep my eyes down throughout. In case the police stop- ped us — this was a bad time to be out on the road — the story was that we had been to Anglesea for the day, birdwatching. A bag full of binoculars and bird books completed the cover. We crossed Runcorn bridge, went in the direction of Hoylake, then turned towards Chester. After that 1 lost track of where we were.
We parked near a grove off the main road. The equipment had been left there the day before in a black plastic bag. The girl stayed in the van; the co-ordinator, the new recruit and I set off. 'Pay attention to each step and you will make less noise.' We tramped across an open field. Another field. 'Don't worry, the rest of the B group is in that wood, looking out.' They had portable CB radios, the co-ordinator wore a beeper on his shirt.
The stink alerted me that we were near the birds. The co-ordinator pointed out the boiler sheds. There were four of them; each contained 15,000 chickens he said. There was a chink of light on one. 'That's a loose filter: we spotted it on earlier trips. That's where I shall -enter from.' I was asked to wait and watch while the two of them slid under the hedge onto the farm.
After I had seen the chickens I climbed down from the shed and waited. `Let's go now,' the recruit said to me. But I wanted to see the chickens being rescued. 'He says they're too old.' Too old? 'Yes, we hadn't expected 15-week-old chickens. They'll make a racket when he goes down and we can't risk you being here. Some friends of ours will come and take the goods.'
It was raining when we tramped back and my spectacles got so wet I couldn't see. The recruit didn't know the way to the van so we got lost. He panicked and began to run. I followed him, my wellingtons splashing in the mud. When we finally found the van it wouldn't start. We pushed but the wheels sank into the ground. The dog began to bark.
Exactly 110 years ago the morality of vivisection was under debate in England and the Spectator, to its credit, took the lead in influencing public opinion. On 2 January 1875, the Lancet published an appeal to the members, of the SPCA that they initiate a Bill intended to restrict vivisection.
The Times was sceptical, just as it had been in 1800 when a Bill to prohibit bull-baiting was first introduced, but the Spectator (30 January) noted the Lancet's demand for legislation and expressed its `very sincere pleasure' that the medical paper had taken this line. Next week (6 February) the Spectator published a letter that had appeared the previous week in the Morning Post. Writ- ten by a former vivisector, it described in brutal detail the workings of a laboratory where experiments were performed on dogs. 'Let no one read the letter who has already made up his mind that the practice must be rigidly restricted or put an end to,' warned the editor. 'For such a one it would be needless suffering.'
The campaign had its effect. On 12 February a long letter appeared in the columns of the Pall Mall Gazette written by someone who had been prompted by the description of horrors he had read in the previous week's Spectator:
. . This, then, is the glorious future to which the advocate of secular education may look forward: the dawn that gilds the horizon of his hopes! An age when all forms of religious thought shall be things of the past; when Chemistry and Biology shall be the ABC of a State education enforced on all; when vivisec- tion shall be practised in every college and school; and when the man of science, looking forth over a world which will then own no other sway than his, shall exult in the thought that he made of this fair green earth, if not a heaven for man, at least a hell for animals.
The author of this prescient letter was none other than Mr Lewis Carroll.
The good men of the SPCA, it appears, took their time in responding. (They would: in 1868 John Stuart Mill declined the vice-presidency of the Society on the ground that its operations were limited `to the offences committed by the uninfluen- tial classes of society'.) So on 20 March the Spectator once again urged the Society `to gird itself to the work' of 'putting a strong curb on this ruling scientific passion'. 'Pain', the piece noted, `is a fearful natural evil, but the willingness to inflict agony on one creature for another creature's relief, or possible relief, is a moral evil.'
A Bill was introduced in Parliament. Through 1876 the Spectator followed the progress of the Bill, on occasion giving Stanley Jevons a wigging when the logician introduced an illogical argument in support of vivisection (29 April), but mostly noting how the Bill was being emasculated. On 12 August it spoke of the 'severely vivisected, and, we might almost say, disembowelled. Vivisection Bill':
We cannot say we much value the Bill, as it is now likely to be passed. But no one who knows the evidence well can doubt that the moral distrust of the humanity of physiologists
which it still expresses, is a moral distrust Justified by the most convincing of all testi- mony — spontaneous confession.
The Cruelty to Animals Act 1876 is to this day the sole protector of laboratory animals in Britain: there were at least a dozen Private Members' Bills between 1966 and 1976, all of which failed to make it to the statute book. In 1876 less than 800 vivisection experiments were performed in Britain but even so the Spectator felt the Act was not good enough: last month the Home Office revealed that 3.5 million such experiments were carried out in 1984, the lowest figure since 1959. Further, some new scientific procedures beat the Act because they defied the Victorian imagination. For example, the use of animals to grow tumours for re- search into cancer is unregulated as the Act describes a procedure as an experiment only if a question is being asked: in the case of a tumour growth the conclusion is known, The Spectator was right on the other point as well, the moral distrust of the humanity of physiologists. The night be- fore I was taken on the raid, I was shown The Primates Film, a video made by researchers in the Head Injury Clinic of the University of Pennsylvania and stolen by the American ALF in June 1984. Elec- trodes are driven into a baboon's brain, another baboon has a metal helmet cemented to its head. A researcher then bashes this helmet with a hammer.
Towards the end of the film a woman researcher picks up a brain-damaged ba- boon by its shoulders and the rest have some fun with it. She flops the baboon about, making it pose for the video while off camera the men in white coats laugh and joke. 'Is the punk okay?' asks one. The others guffaw. 'Punk? Ha ha ha.' The baboon writhes. 'Right over here,, say cheese.' What fun. 'I hope the vivisection People don't get hold of this film.'
The moral urgency of the question of vivisection, and of the larger question of the status of animals in our society, is even greater today than it was 110 years ago when the Spectator exercised itself about such matters. Going by the rate at which wine and food columns sprout in this paper, I suspect readers today have other Interests. If so, that is a tragedy and it says something about contemporary Britain. There is something sad and ridiculous about semi-educated men in masks going about their task of liberating 30 chickens at a time in the dead of night when thousands remain in the cramped broiler farms. But there is a moral quality to these men which cannot be smirked away. I am no admirer of 'direct action'. I would rather they worked for legislative change. But what is truly sad — and ridiculous — is that the well-heeled and the well-educated, the ones who could influence legislation more effectively, have backed away from such moral concerns, and are more interested in the contents of next month's Tatler — or even next week's Spectator.