The early years
Opposition to the use of animals by humans dates back to philosophical debates in the 17th century. The first organised pressure groups were formed in the United Kingdom (UK), and were initially concerned with the treatment of animals in agriculture. By the end of the 19th century, the increasing use of animals in scientific research led to the formation of various organisations opposed to such research. The UK’s National Anti-Vivisection Society was established in 1875, followed in 1898 by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Both remain active to this day. In 1910, several thousand anti-vivisection protesters gathered in Trafalgar Square in London in as part of a campaign leading up to the Protection of Animals Act which outlawed unnecessary acts of cruelty to domestic or captive animals the following year.
The Hunt Saboteurs Association and the Band of Mercy
The animal rights movement in the UK was relatively inactive during the first half of the 20th century but regained momentum during the 1960s and 70s. In 1963, the formation of the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) marked the beginning of a new phase of radical protest. The HSA advocated strictly non-violent tactics, using roadblocks, hunting horns and false scents to disrupt hunts. Frustrated by the limited scope and success of the HSA’s activities, a small group broke away in the early 1970s to form the more militant Band of Mercy.
This new organisation began to use tactics that more closely resemble today’s direct actions – slashing tyres and smashing the windows of hunters’ vehicles. In 1973, the Band of Mercy carried out the first
act of arson in the name of animal rights, setting fire to a Hoechst Pharmaceuticals research laboratory near Milton Keynes, England. After more attacks on laboratories the following year, two of the group were sentenced to three years in prison.
The Animal Liberation Front
One of those convicted, a law student named Ronnie Lee, emerged in 1976 to establish the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), an organisation with the stated aim of “inflicting economic damage on those who profit from the misery and exploitation of animals”. Initially focused on stealing animals from farms, circuses, and research facilities, the ALF’s tactics quickly escalated to include numerous acts of arson. Early UK extremists carried out hundreds of incendiary attacks against research organisations, academic institutions and retailers.
In the United States (US), direct actions in the name of the ALF soon followed those in the UK and developed along similar lines. The first acts were ‘liberations’ of animals from academic research centres, and often involved substantial criminal damage. An ALF cell caused $700,000 worth of damage in a raid on a laboratory at the University of California in 1985 and stole 468 animals. Two years later, an arson attack on another University of California laboratory destroyed a building and 20 vehicles, causing $5.1 million worth of damage. Extremists continued to target universities all over the US. A firebomb attack in 1992 on a Michigan State University research facility caused damage amounting to $1.2 million, and resulted in the conviction of Rod Coronado, a veteran animal rights advocate. He was sentenced to three and half years in prison despite a $45,200 donation from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) towards his legal defence. In 1987, the founder of the ALFt, Ronnie Lee, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit arson and criminal damage, and conspiracy to incite others to commit criminal damage, and was jailed for 10 years in the UK.