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High-Tech Activism

HIGH-TECH ACTIVISM

The high cost of losing vs. the economics of victory

by Steve Hindi

President, Chicago Animal Rights Coalition (CHARC)*

(Reprinted from ANIMAL PEOPLE, 12/95)

In 1992, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Illinois targeted thousands of "surplus" deer for slaughter by sharpshooting and by rocket-netting followed by captive bolt dispatch. While we opposed killing healthy deer by either method, sharpshooting at least theoretically offered the possibility of instant death. Rocket-netting was an entirely different matter.

Rocket-nets are explosive devices that literally blast a heavy net over groups of deer drawn to a baited site. People who live nearby often call rocket nets "howitzers," as their roar can be heard for miles. The stress to the victims cannot be overestimated, as the explosives detonate just a few feet from the victims as they feed. Rocket-netting also causes a high incidence of unintended injury, as frightened deer hurt themselves trying to escape.

Forest Preserve District officials were well aware of all this. But rather than address the cruelty of rocket-netting, they chose to secure themselves against exposure and any resulting public relations fallout. Orders were given to close the preserves to the public a couple of hours before the killings each evening. Sawhorses, vehicles and armed guards were stationed at each entrance. Armed security personnel patrolled the boundaries. The Forest Preserve looked like what it was??a war zone??with the deer the unarmed and unsuspecting "enemy."

District personnel refused to allow anyone, from taxpayers to the media, to view the killing. They assured the public that the slaughter was fast, humane and painless. They said the deer did not struggle much in the nets, were never injured before having their brains pulverized, and never got away.

While media and complacent public accepted this propaganda, we were unconvinced.

For over two years, the Chicago Animal Rights Coalition and other animal protection groups struggled against the District. We spent thousands of hours at county government meetings, made hundreds of phone calls, wrote letters, and protested in sub-freezing weather near the killing sites. We accomplished little if anything, and the slaughter went on. Some of us were arrested, which only drove our costs higher. What we needed was videotape of the killing. This would convince the public??but we said we could not afford the cost of the specialized equipment that could do the job. This was what we believed. We were wrong.

In fall 1994, CHARC came to a new realization. The cost to us involved in losing the battle far eclipsed any amount likely to be spent in an intelligent plan to win??over and above the obvious cost in pain, suffering, and loss of life to the deer. We educated ourselves about the available covert video technology. It was not a cheap solution, but we had come to believe that it was one way, maybe the only way, to stop the killing.

The evening of January 9, 1995 was just another night of slaughter for the killers of the DuPage County Forest Preserve District. On that night, however, more than the deer were being hunted. As the "howitzers" exploded, as deer jumped and somersaulted in panic, crashed, were dragged in the nets, and finally had their brains blown out, a hidden video camera recorded every pitiless moment, every struggle, every scream. Two firings of the nets were recorded that night. One firing resulted in suffering that went on for 35 minutes. Our video exposed every lie the District's propaganda machine had ground out for more than two years.

The next meeting of the DuPage County Forest Preserve Commissioners began pretty much like all the others. Animal protection activists were there, apparently, to again bang their heads against the wall. The smug killers were there, confident that their cruel and deadly secrets were still safe. The Commissioners were there, ready to stand behind the District staff, and to ignore the truth. This, however, was a day of change.

During the public comment session at the beginning of the meeting, we played our secretly obtained videotape to a room of stunned observers. Even those Commissioners who supported the killing watched intently, likely dreading the negative publicity and hard questions they knew would follow. The killers looked as if a bomb had dropped on them, while activists who hadn't previously seen the video saw their worst imagining realized.

THE EYES HAVE IT

Seeing was believing. The DuPage County Forest Preserve Commissioners voted to stop rocket-netting and captive-bolting deer on the very day they saw the video. The same media that previously supported rocket-netting as a "necessary evil" now came out strongly against it. Chicago television news stations played the footage repeatedly, sometimes preceded by warnings that discretion should be used by viewers, due to the disturbing nature of the subject matter. Radio stations played the sounds of deer crying out as they struggled before being killed, with similar warnings.

The District, desperate to avoid the public outrage, claimed the footage was not from DuPage County. In response, CHARC scheduled an outdoor press conference right at the killing fields, and invited District personnel to attend. CHARC and the media showed up, but not one member of the District appeared. One disgusted newspaper wrote a scathing editorial against them, titled "Show Up Or Shut Up!" Other, more inventive "explanations" from the District became laughable. The DuPage County Forest Preserve District was completely discredited, and is even today far from recovered.

While the costs of successfully saving lives were in the thousands of dollars, this was a pittance compared to what we spent over the years to lose. And our victory spread became larger, as seeing the uproar in DuPage County, the neighboring Cook County Forest Preserve District adopted a permanent moratorium on rocket-netting.

We have gone on to use our undercover video equipment to expose cruelty in donkey basketball, rodeos, and canned hunts. And we have continued to improve our video capabilities. We now have equipment that can shoot over long distances, and at night. We have tiny video cameras we can hide on a person's body, as well as video cameras and recorders with timers, which can be planted indoors or out. Technology is advancing so quickly that it is hard to keep up with what is available. There seems to be no end in sight to the possibilities for documenting cruelty to animals.

Other than being there, nothing captures better than videotape the essence of a situation. Little is more compelling than a crying, suffering, or dying animal. This is something I hope even the smallest groups will come to realize soon. Some large organizations have used undercover video for years. But grassroots people must rely upon their own devices, because help from the big groups isn't always available, and their longterm national strategies may not include stopping particular abuses right here and now. Video technology, meanwhile, can turn even a lone activist into an effective deep cover strike force.

CHARC now rarely goes on any action without video equipment. Our cameras have helped record improper police activity at protests, and the crimes of thugs such as those who attend pigeon shoots. But our most important use of video is in documenting abuse itself. Pigeon shooters in Hegins, Pennsylvania and other areas have taken terrible hits because of long distance footage documenting their nightmarish treatment of wounded birds. Now, hidden video footage of a live turkey shoot, which also occurred in Pennsylvania, is exacerbating their public relations nightmare. The club exposed by the video vowed to never hold another live animal shoot. Laboratories, circuses, dog and cock fights, farm and slaughter abuse, and virtually every other type of abuse can now be revealed with imagination and funding.

It is my hope that every activist organization will start building a video arsenal. Animal abusers dread public exposure. Without question, video equipment is expensive up front, not to mention difficult to work with. But it is CHARC's experience that in the end, winning is not nearly as expensive as losing, either in dollars or lives.

One word of caution: consult a lawyer if possible, prior to an operation, to make sure you do not violate anyone's right of privacy. CHARC has never had a problem with this, but it is wise to be cautious until you know your way around the legalities.

If you are interested in learning more about covert video, please contact us. We will be happy to discuss our equipment and methods, and will give you the names of our equipment suppliers. We may even be able to come and help in certain situations.

If you want to take a bite out of animal abuse, try video "hunting." Your opposition is likely to be a "sitting duck."

(ANIMAL PEOPLE is a nonprofit monthly newspaper providing independent professional coverage of all the news about animal protection, from animal rescue to zoological conservation. If you give to help animals, you'll especially want our annual report on how each leading group spends donations ($3.00). Subscriptions, U.S. or foreign, are $22/year, $35/2 years, or $50/three years, to POB 960, Clinton, WA 98236, USA. AP will send a free sample issue to anyone who provides a postal address.)

*The organization has since been renamed SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness)