My Adventure Presenting Animal Rights Philosophy to the FBI

On April 13, 2006, I received a strange phone call at my Los Angeles home from an FBI Special Agent Instructor. I’ll call him Andy.

It was strange because the FBI had never before contacted me. Did I breach some obscure statute? I remembered a book of “absurd laws,” which said that in my neighborhood it was illegal to spit on the sidewalk, drive in a housecoat or allow animals to mate publicly within 1,500 feet of a school or church. Had my little, white terrier been committing impure acts at Erwin Elementary?

It turned out Special Agent Andy wanted me to fly to Quantico, Virginia (near Washington D.C.) to lecture law enforcement executives and managers from around the world about animal philosophy, keeping in mind “the mindset and methodologies of terrorists and the government’s response.”

It was an unusual request—even for an animal rights advocate, such as myself, with a doctorate in philosophy--so I did what anyone would do: I contacted my family, friends and criminal attorney.

I don’t really have a criminal attorney, but I have a friend who regularly handles high-profile cases. He furrowed his bushy brow and cautioned, “Don’t do anything. Let me check this out first. The FBI railroad innocent people all the time.”

My anxiety multiplied when an animal person said, “only traitors talk to the government” and a non-animal friend advised me to take a lawyer with me and to refuse to “name names” when “testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee.”

“I don’t have any names,” I protested, but then remembered a particularly annoying local journalist who had infuriated much of the Los Angeles community. Nah, I thought, it would be inappropriate to use the FBI for the purpose of revenge.

A Los Angeles Police Department friend offered the only encouragement, “It is an honor to be invited. Don’t worry. I’ll tell them you’re not a subversive and not to arrest you until after our tennis match next week.” She laughed.

I felt the real purpose behind the FBI’s invitation had to do with their misguided aim to infiltrate the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which cannot be infiltrated because it is an ideology rather than an organization. There are no meetings, mailing lists or membership cards. Anybody can claim to be a member of the ALF when rescuing animals, destroying “tools of torture” (such as research equipment) or financially depleting a corporation that abuses animals; as long as he or she does not injure a human or nonhuman in the process.

The FBI has designated the ALF as America’s number one domestic terrorist threat, in spite of the fact that those acting on its behalf have never physically harmed anyone. The same cannot be said of unions, who have reportedly instigated 2,193 acts of violence in the last ten years—including near fatal injuries--and anti-abortion activists who have made 13,256 attacks in the past three decades against doctors and clinics, including murders, kidnappings and bombings. By comparison, ALF-attributed actions are quite rare.

In 2003, hate crimes totaled approximately 7,400 and recognized violations of environmental laws by corporations hit 450. Senator Barak Obama says he is baffled as to why the ALF is the foremost target, since the FBI itself has stated that ALF-attributed crimes are on the decline.

In Congressional Quarterly, Justin Rood argues that the US government is silencing free speech from the political left while ignoring those on the radical right, and the American Civil Liberties Union suggests that the government is attempting to quell controversial ideas by targeting mainstream animal and environmental groups, peace activists and others who participate in lawful protest when in fact they “should be investigating real terrorists.”

As an animal advocate for the past 25 years, I have only heard of two illegal animal-related actions, and both were committed by carnivores indifferent to the animal movement. One contemplated attributing his lawless act to the ALF, and the other might have done so under the right circumstances.

The first “villain” was an elderly attorney, who broke into his own home to rescue his two, pet pigeons after it had had been padlocked by health department officials. The man had been told that he would be thrown into jail without the possibility of bail if he were to set foot on the property. His equally villainous university professor friend manned the getaway car. Neither were vegetarians. Neither was young or agile. And prior to this, neither had committed what the FBI might call a “terrorist act.” They cut off the oversized padlock and rescued two, healthy pigeons on an autumn night in 2005. They have escaped arrest to this day, but are not on the run.

The second “terrorist” was, in fact, a remorseful vivisectionist who would sneak animals off the premises before slaughter and place them in loving homes. If his superior had questioned the disappearance of “specimens,” the researcher, in order to retain his job, could have simply pointed his finger at the ALF.

Decision day arrived, and my criminal attorney gave me the flickering yellow light, warning me that my visit to the Academy would prompt the FBI to open a file on me.

“Well, I plan to open a file on them, too,” I assured him. “But, I promise not to put any falsehoods in my file if they don’t put any falsehoods in theirs.”

“Go if you want. It’s legit, but take my number in case.”

My plan was to serve as an ambassador for the animal rights movement and to convey through my lecture the truth about how animals suffer under human oppression, as well as to present philosophical arguments as to why animals are of equal value to humans and worthy of equal consideration. I wanted my audience to understand that anti-terrorism resources should be used to combat dangerous groups who fly planes into buildings, rather than renegade gerbil lovers. It would not be realistic to suggest that animal-related “crimes” be ignored, but I argued they be deprioritized in an age when chemical, biological and nuclear warfare are possible.

An ominous feeling tented the empty road and thick woods in Quantico, and the sound of guns slammed through the air. I met Special Agent Andy, a fine host for the FBI, at the first security checkpoint, and he immediately drove me past a sign, which read, “Danger. Field Firing in Process.” Was this disclaimer the result of an accident? Perhaps a speaker had been shot in her compact rental car. I scanned for stray bullets.

Andy took me on a brief tour of the grounds, pointing out a pretend town called Hogan’s Alley with fake storefronts, including a bank in which actors are hired at $12.00 per hour to play “robber,” “hostage” or “drug dealer” with FBI trainees.

I laughed, “Do the actors ever win?” Andy gave me a stern look, “We take that very seriously. It is not good to get shot even in playtime.”

Andy had a penchant—as did all the agents I met—for comparing their work with crime shows and movies. At one point he mentioned, “We (the FBI) are more like Barney Miller than James Bond. More paperwork than adventure.” In many ways, the afternoon was a crash course in TV trivia.

The presentation room was a small lecture hall with a podium, microphone and display screen for the speaker, and fixed seats on ascending levels for attendees. I was told that two FBI psychologists would sit in on my lecture. Although the psychologists were charming, I felt their aim was to scrutinize me, to learn how to squash the animal rights movement. I felt the others were there to learn.

My presentation began with undercover video footage inside a vivisection lab. It showed a man in a white coat pounding on a Beagle puppy and forcing tubes down several dogs’ throats; the animals were clearly in distress. I surmised cleaning liquids or pesticides would be poured down the tubes since they were routinely tested at this lab. In another clip, monkeys screamed while their penises were electrocuted by scientists.

Andy shouted from the back of the room, “The FBI will prosecute this sort of cruelty if videos like this are brought to our attention.”

I pointed out that obtaining undercover video is illegal in itself, even more so with the advent of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which states that a person can be prosecuted if he or she causes over $10,000 worth of economic damage to a corporation that uses animals. Showing undercover video could cause investors to sell their stocks, decimating profits. Those who unveil the video could face time in prison and fines.

In addition, I told the crowd that it was unlikely the barbarous treatment of dogs and monkeys in the footage was against the law. And even if it was, prosecution tends to result in nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Because animals are property, and the law generally finds it acceptable to use and kill animals for human gain, imposing prison terms and steep fines on large corporations—who have even larger lawyers--is rare.

During my lecture, I was able to get several law enforcement executives to admit openly that they would break the law, if necessary, to rescue an animal in distress, although they did not specifically agree to break into a research lab or factory farm. This was quite an accomplishment because prior to the presentation, Andy had privately told me that any FBI agent who did not or could not (for ethical reasons) uphold all US laws would be fired. My audience was mostly non-FBI so they surely kept their jobs.

Andy was keen on discussing “solutions” for bridging the gap between “them and us,” although he hinted that the Bureau’s favored tactic was to develop a network of spies within the animal movement who would report illegal actions. I told Andy this strategy was sure to fail because I had been a loyal animal rights person for 25 years, and had only heard about two so-called criminals: the aforementioned renegade researcher and pigeon man, neither connected to the movement.

I was pleased with Andy’s desire to better the relationship between law enforcement and animal rights activists and offered the following suggestions. First, I said that law enforcement could advise the President and Congress to support legislation that improves the situation for nonhumans and to enforce existing anti-cruelty laws. The FBI could also place “weeding out animal cruelty” higher on its “to do” list.

Secondly, I suggested that the FBI work on bettering its image and investigate real terrorists rather than plunging into what is perceived as a modern-day Inquisition. It was both curious and alarming that every person who found out about my speaking engagement “freaked out.” This mistrust no doubt largely stemmed from the problematic history of the FBI; which is detailed in Richard Gid Powers’ book, Broken: The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI. Powers argues that the Bureau hones in on any issue that “represent(s) the fears and hatred of the masses or classes,” rather than investigating those crimes that most offend the law or pose the gravest danger, an allegation that coincides with what animal and environmental supporters call today’s “Green Scare.”

Beginning with the FBI’s inception in the early 1900’s, Powers’ book moves through the FBI’s “witch hunts” against “whomever might be the public enemy of the day.” There was the “White Slavery Scare,” which was embarked upon due to a racist fear by Whites about the increasing power of Blacks, the “Adultery Scare,” and the notorious “Red Scare,” among others.

Today, a substantial number of people feel the Patriot Act is used for political reasons, and the ACLU charges that the FBI is spying on and examining the records of thousands of law-abiding US citizens. Andy says these allegations are untrue and that the Bureau supports free speech and lawful protest. He adds that simply tapping a phone takes excessive manpower; therefore, would only be reserved for someone who is a substantial threat.

My third suggestion was that law enforcement officers make good “situation ethics” decisions. Even though Andy insisted laws are not malleable, I know there is always the exercise of discretion and could tell lecture attendees agreed by their nodding heads. I pointed out situations in which police officers have leeway to make decisions that directly affect the life or safety of animals.

For example, during the Katrina disaster, some officers allowed people to evacuate with their animals; others did not. At a burning apartment building in Tennessee in 2003, police and firefighters refused to allow a man to rescue his trapped dog who was clawing at the glass of a sliding door. The man eventually ignored law enforcement’s orders and rescued his dog. He was handcuffed and charged with misdemeanors, outraging the public and arguably tarnishing the reputation of local law enforcement. If the man’s two-year-old daughter had been clawing at the glass, would law enforcement have told him to “stand back and let the child die?”

As a finale to my lecture, I questioned why the only difference between a criminal and a terrorist--according to the US Code of Federal Regulations as listed on the FBI website--relates to the latter’s desire to further “political or social objectives.” The word “terrorist” evokes the image of an evil person while the word “criminal” has a less pejorative connotation, even when the offenses are the same.

One can only assume that “furthering political or social objectives” frightens those in power, who crave to maintain the status quo. Perhaps those who control society—such as corporations, government entities and media conglomerates--fear the ideology of an animal liberationist could catch hold and topple them from their golden thrones, reducing their animal product profits and a overturning a lifestyle which requires nonhumans be seen as means to a human end. Is this the true reason behind branding the ALF as “terrorists?”

After the lecture, Andy asked me, “Could you come back and speak again?”

“I doubt it. Unfortunately, I don’t fare well on long plane rides.”

He added, “Well, maybe you could give me the name of someone who could.”

I grinned and replied, “I knew you’d ask me to name names. I have no choice but to report this in my secret file.”