By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
HUNTSVILLE--Stampy the nervous beagle weaves through the metal chairs, braving a tangle of feet and ignoring the hands that sporadically descend to pet him. The dog finds his destination by scent and stops, lifting a leg to spray the weathered base of a wooden pole.
His display takes the attention away from Ernest Samudio, who is lecturing a dozen activists on how to deal with the media during radical pro-animal protests. "I've been trying to get him to go on the grass, but he won't, and by the time I get to him he's finished," Samudio says as the dog plods over to his feet. "Good boy, Stampy."
The audience chuckles appreciatively. They know the dog was rescued--in an uncharacteristically legal way--from the University of Texas at Austin's Animal Resources Center. Activists caught wind of a deal the university had with a medical research company, on whose behalf the school was storing dogs until it was time to kill them and harvest their organs for cell research. Stampy was given to the activists after the company bailed on the estimated $25,000 beagle-storing contract. (And yes, the dog was named after Bart's elephant in that episode of The Simpsons.)
"The animal rights movement seems to be a lot more radical than before. People are more willing to try various tactics," says Samudio, a 38-year-old veteran of various radical campaigns and a temp worker in Austin. "They're willing to be more confrontational and move beyond demonstrations."
Their war is against wealth that they believe is gained at the expense of animals too dumb to defend themselves.
The crowd, thin as it is, consists of organizers in their late teens and early 20s who are there to ponder and practice methods of dramatic "direct actions" with the intent to bring those lessons back to campuses and streets in Houston, Austin and Dallas. Training includes climbing 20-foot tripods used to block traffic, tips on interacting with the media and lessons in animal rights history, security measures meant to keep local cops or feds away and statewide targets of opportunity.
The national anarchist group Food Not Bombs, which made its name feeding vegetarian meals to the homeless, provides food on Saturday and Sunday. Most of the attendees head small eco-groups in Texas, and this early April weekned serves as a morale/courage builder for those on the verge of planning criminal activities ranging from civil disobedience to arson.
Welcome to the fringe of the environmental movement.
Here you'll find those who protest outside circuses and rodeos, heckle kids on the way into aquariums, break into research facilities to steal animals and chain themselves outside Nieman Marcus to keep fur customers away. They're the kind who are capable of burning down a building to cause maximum economic damage to "those who make profit from exploiting animals."
The word radical may fit the group's approach to social change, but it hardly describes this weekend's attendees as people. The group of college kids hardly fits the stereotypical images of Molotov cocktail-throwing anarchists, LSD-crazed vets or weed-befuddled hippies. Instead, these activists are a grim and straight bunch, here to strengthen their youthful resolve to change the world.
"Here" is the ramshackle guesthouse of rich man/activist/strange-o George Russell, who owns thousands of acres at various sites in and around Huntsville. The building is doorless and has gaps in its roof. It's wired for electricity but lacks running water. Russell uses his land to host meetings of activists from across the left side of the spectrum. He made a cameo Friday night, driving across the lawn to the front door and staggering inside in his bright blue Hawaiian shirt.
"What's the ALF?" he asks, referring to a sign posted on his gate. The answer is quick: the Animal Liberation Front. "No shit! I thought the Sierra Club was coming this weekend," Russell says, waving his nearly empty bottle of red wine expansively.
The ALF is the most radical element of the animal rights movement, a breathing example of pure revolutionary theory in action. The ALF is a collection of autonomous groups that follow a similar code of sabotage and high-profile economic protests in their battle on behalf of nonhuman animals. The movement is international, starting in England during the 1970s and spreading through Europe and into the United States. There is no hierarchy and no central fund-raising mechanism.
"The reason the FBI has a tough time stopping ALF activities is that there's no centralization at all," Samudio tells the crowd. "Up until recently it was real hush-hush, then [the pro-ALF newspaper] No Compromise! came out and there was an explosion of support."
Anyone who throws a brick through a puppy farm window can be considered a member of the ALF, as long as the protesters adhere to the rule that prohibits injury to humans or animals. What they are fighting is so entrenched that opportunities for sabotage on soft, unsuspecting targets are literally everywhere: fast-food joints, dog breeders, rodeos and aquariums. Protests are fine, but what really gets the ALF crowd going is break-ins and arsons. A choice target for blazing would be a newly constructed research lab, like the first major ALF arson in 1987 at University of California-Davis that caused millions of dollars in damages.