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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Radical British Animal Rights Activists

Air Date: Week of

British animal rights activist Barry Horne is serving a lengthy prison sentence for arson attacks against people and places he considers cruel to animals. Mr. Horne has ended a 67-day hunger strike protest after British government officials promised to look into the use of animals in experiments. In recent years, groups like Britain's Animal Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for dozens of guerrilla-style attacks, and had threatened to assassinate 10 people it accused of cruelty to animals if Mr. Horne had died on hunger strike. Steve Curwood speaks with journalist Kevin Toolis who has covered Britain's animal rights movement for the Guardian newspaper.


CURWOOD: In Britain, an animal rights activist serving a prison sentence for firebombing recently ended a 67-day hunger strike. Barry Horne halted his protest after members of Parliament promised to look into the use of animals in experiments. His supporters include Britain's Animal Liberation Front, an underground movement which has claimed responsibility for dozens of guerilla- style attacks in recent years. The group had threatened to assassinate 10 people it accused of cruelty to animals if Mr. Horne had died on hunger strike. Journalist Kevin Toolis has written extensively on Britain's animal rights movement for the Guardian newspaper. He says the movement exacts a heavy toll on the British economy.

TOOLIS: Each and every year there are something like a 1,000, 2,000 actions. Some of them are incredibly petty. Like, there has been a sustained campaign to go around and super-glue the locks of butcher shops. I mean, much more serious actions by the Animal Liberation Front have been the burning down of department stores, the use of firebombs and incendiary devices against research laboratories. The expenditure in terms of the security does run into tens of millions of dollars each and every year.

CURWOOD: How many people are involved in all of this? And how are they organized?

TOOLIS: It's not a formal hierarchy, it's not a military organization. It's a loose confederation of individuals who basically come together because they believe in the same things. They believe that, you know, western industrial society is animal abusing. They rely upon a wider network of activists who are prepared to go on quite violent demonstrations or take part in raids. And they would number 300 or 400 people. Beyond them is a sort of passive network of supporters, that ranges into 3,000 or 4,000 people.

CURWOOD: Now, you wrote that no other violent revolutionary movement in the past 200 years has gained such widespread acceptance in both the middle- and working-class households. What explains this popularity in Britain?

TOOLIS: It is a difficult conundrum to try and unpick. Clearly, the British have a fondness, a sentimentality, towards animals. Cats and dogs are very popular. Television nightly programs have programs about Mad About Pets or Animal Hospital. I mean, these programs attract large audiences in Britain. And so that seems to be the base by which the Animal Liberation Front tap into for support. I mean, they often compare the kinds of medical experiments undergone by laboratory animals, they often try to say that this could happen to your cat, your dog. Obviously, they bring it down to a personal level.

CURWOOD: Does the Animal Liberation Front reach beyond Britain?

TOOLIS: Yes, I think the ALF, as it's called, has a branch in North America. There's recently been a sustained campaign of burning down McDonalds in Belgium. There have been actions in Sweden. The British ALF has spawned ALFs all around the world, and is seen as being, you know, a leader, an inspiration to animal rights activists everywhere.

CURWOOD: So, in general, would you say the Animal Liberation Front is growing in strength and support in Britain? Or not?

TOOLIS: It's very hard, actually, to assess whether it is growing. Certainly, I mean, we're talking about it. We're conscious of animal rights philosophies in a way that were simply unheard of and unknown 10 years ago, and probably in parts of America are still relatively alien. But most British scientists are too afraid to speak in public about animal experimentation for fear that their homes will be picketed, that letter bombs would be sent to their addresses, that they would be physically attacked in the streets. I mean, it is a serious business.

CURWOOD: Kevin Toolis writes for Britain's weekend Guardian. Thank you, sir.

TOOLIS: Thank you for listening.



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