By the end of the month, a small band of animal rights activists could be sentenced to a maximum of seven years in federal prison after having been found guilty of conspiracy and harassment. In a conviction as groundbreaking as the methods employed by their group—Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty U.S.—the so-called SHAC Six are the first people ever to be convicted of violating the 15-year-old Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which imposes stiff penalties for the disruption of animal-testing labs, fur farms, zoos, and the like.
The 20- and 30-year-olds—personified by leader Kevin Kjonaas, a bouncy, 120-pound vegan—didn’t break into labs or hurt anyone, but Judge Anne Thompson of the U.S. District Court of New Jersey in Trenton ruled that they used their website to promote vandalism. The judge also ruled that the demos staged in front of executives’ homes (which, according to court transcripts, often resulted in verbally abusive confrontations) had the effect of putting people in “reasonable fear of injury or death.” Over the objections of the defense, U.S. Attorney Charles McKenna successfully linked the New Jersey group to a British animal rights group of the same name, which, in turn, was once linked to pipe bombings and an assault.
SHAC U.S. was formed to put Huntingdon Life Sciences— one of the world’s largest private research companies that test products on animals—out of business, and though the SHAC Six are no more, a local group says it’s picked up where SHAC left off. Ever since the indictment, members of Win Animal Rights (WAR) have been badgering New York industry executives who do business with Huntingdon by staging toned-down but SHAC-style demos in front of apartments where these decision makers live.
“What SHAC did that was revolutionary is they used business strategy to affect business,” says Camille Hawkins, the 53-year-old co-founder of WAR. “They analyzed the company and everything they needed to exist— investors, insurance, banks, securities, an auditor.” Then, according to court documents, SHAC targeted them all, intimidating (or shaming, depending on who is being asked) heavyweights like Schwab, E*Trade, Deloitte & Touche, Aetna, Bank of America— all of whom severed ties with the lab.
On a recent Sunday afternoon Hawkins, dressed like a gym teacher, in baseball cap and sunglasses, leads about 10 members of WAR on one of their weekly tours. This time it’s of Upper East Side buildings that five executives from Pfizer and Glasko Smith Kline call home. Some of the doormen and security guards grin—they’re more than familiar with the group. At 72nd Street and First Avenue, members unfurl their enormous banner depicting a bloody beagle puppy and start in: “Vivisection really sucks! Puppies die for corporate bucks!”
Hawkins, who has been arrested three times for disorderly conduct and violating a court injunction (so far two of the three cases have been dismissed, says lawyer Len Egert) tries to reason with a few annoyed neighbors from an adjacent building. “They don’t just test drugs. They’ve tested Splenda, agricultural chemicals. They’re not trying to find the cure for cancer in there—” A slender mortgage broker in fashionable eyewear interrupts to ask why the group didn’t just go to the company headquarters or something: “You’re punishing a whole block for the actions of one individual!”
“Besides,” shrugs an older woman after Hawkins leaves, “We all own stock in Pfizer, so where does that leave us?”
WAR’s relentless and noisy demos may not make them popular, but they’re part of a relatively new and effective method of disruption, say Wall Street insiders. Last September, New York Stock Exchange president Catherine Kinney announced that although Huntingdon met the fiscal requirements for being listed on the Big Board, the NYSE had changed its mind—Huntingdon’s listing was to be indefinitely postponed. British newspaper headlines screamed foul and blamed the NYSE for caving in to pressure from animal rights extremists, and Huntingdon lawyer Mark Bibi told London’s Daily Mail that SHAC “had succeeded where Osama bin Laden had failed.” New York activists received the news with glee.
To grassroot activists like Hawkins, it was a score of biblical proportions, one born of a strategy never used so effectively against an industry. Before hearing the SHAC Six speak at a Washington, D.C., conference, Hawkins and other like-minded people scattered their free time among various animal causes. “With a lot of us it was fur in the winter, the circus in the spring.” says Hawkins. But SHAC’s strategy of focusing on just one corporate target and hitting it relentlessly in the money belt made sense to the former human resources consultant.
After about 15 minutes at the 72nd Street address, Hawkins moved her crew to a building on 73rd off Second Avenue. That’s when things got exciting. No sooner had the group raised its puppy banner than buckets of cold water poured down from a second-floor window. WAR co-founder Greg Kelly, a tattooed 30-year-old with neo-tribal ear plugs and a quick grin, entered the lobby to drop off their signature “information packet.” Later he said he was shoved out by a doorman, but a woman holding a dog on a tiny leash said Kelly shoved her, and an orgy of cell phone calls to 911 ensued, both sides claiming assault. There was a sidewalk shouting match, Hawkins shrieked that she’d been spat on, WAR began its call-and-response protest chant, and a shirtless man leaning out of a window from a building across the street, white face and chest framed in spider plants, screamed over and over that the protesters should just shut the fuck up.
Twenty minutes later Hawkins’s group left for the final site, shouting that because they’d been abused they’d be back, next time at a more inconvenient hour. “I can’t wait!” bellowed the shirtless man. Four irate residents remained outside, fuming. “It’s been five minutes and there’s no sirens or anything!” said the woman with the little dog. “Five minutes!”
“It’s outrageous,” said another.
The police may have been delayed, but WAR says they have little to fear from the cops. “SHAC got caught up in a lot of very aggressive actions,” says Kelly. “[The prosecution] found a notebook at Kevin’s house with notes about the ALF [the Animal Liberation Front, an underground group that has been linked to violence] and a poster at someone’s apartment of [Huntingdon executive Brian] Cass all bloody.” (Cass was attacked by British activists in 2001.)
WAR, he says, tells doormen who they are before they start yelling, and they keep their demos short, clean, and on point. Now that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act has bared its teeth, they’ve changed their message from “Shut Down Huntingdon” to “Make Huntingdon Stop Testing on Animals.”
Yet testing on animals is all Huntingdon does, and executive director Mike Caulfield says his corporation does nothing he’s ashamed of. He points to the lab’s 20 years of certification by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International—a nonprofit organization that labs voluntarily pay for inspection.
Not surprisingly, that means little to WAR, which points to civil actions such as a lawsuit recently refiled against Huntingdon by the New Jersey SPCA alleging violations of the Animal Welfare Act (one standout example from court documents charges that a technician sliced a “howling, writhing” beagle puppy down the middle for no clear scientific purpose) to explain why the New Jersey lab is worse than other animal-testing labs.
Still, it’s no secret that, like SHAC, WAR’s long-term goal is to get the chemical and pharmaceutical industries to abandon animal testing altogether and that they’re in it for the long haul. While SHAC was still being tried, WAR held its demos every other Sunday outside of a Huntingdon exec’s Upper West Side apartment. “It was February, it was so cold,” says one activist. “We want people to see that we are passionate, so that they will try and understand what drives us to care so much.”