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.
Russell soon left the animal rightists to their business, but not before unloading a stand-up style diatribe on the horrors of Presidents Bush I and II, the shortcomings of Al Gore and how Jesus must have been an environmentalist. Russell wields money from his family's small real estate and rental empire to defend the environment. After his departure, the students went back to their Friday night activity: watching film after film of protest footage and pro-ALF videos, one of which featured a masked animal liberator in training for a break-in, the vignette climaxing when he vaults a chainlink fence to the theme of the movie Rocky.
"The camps here in Texas are a new thing," says 23-year-old Megan Lewis, the co-director of Animal Liberation of Texas, a Dallas-based group that boasts 30 active members and an e-mail list that numbers nearly 500. "The state has been slow to organize. I think it might be the culture here, and in the South in general. It's part of the tradition, working with the land."
Lewis, a native of Fort Worth, attends UT-Dallas and keeps one spectacled eye on law school; she will take the LSAT in October. At age 16 she stumbled on animal rights literature at a concert and was drawn in, first becoming a vegetarian (no meat), then a full-blown "vegan" (no meat, eggs or dairy, no leather or wool, no makeup) while progressing from an animal rights supporter to the co-founder of her own group.
Dallas' animal rights activists could have a much worse spokesperson, now that former Animal Liberation of Texas head and perennial Big D Lorax Lydia Nichols moved to California. Lewis carries herself calmly and with a sense of purpose that lacks the sanctimoniousness that mars many discussions with activists. Maybe she's at ease with the surroundings; for once she's not outnumbered in a crowd. "The biggest misconception is that we don't care about humans, or human rights," she says. "And that we're violent and uninformed about our movement."
Her soft features and slight frame seem incongruous with the FBI characterization to Congress of a budding domestic terror group. Animal rights radicals have a very tough time seeing themselves as terrorists, mostly because they don't understand the term and can't see beyond their own beliefs. "Terrorism is about taking human lives," Samudio tells the small band. Webster's New World defines it as: "The use of force or threats to intimidate, etc., esp. as a political policy." That includes fear of economic damage from sabotage and protests designed for maximum negative impact. Texas actions so far have been noticeably less severe than on the West Coast, where arson, tree spiking and lab vandalism have become more routine.
According to the ALF document An Animal Liberation Primer: Third Edition, "When the situation calls for more drastic measures, arson, a traditional ALF tactic, is an easy quick way to cause major financial damage...Realize that arson has a bad name. Conservative and even liberal/semi-radical activists cringe at the so-called 'violent' act of blazing."
When it comes to burning things down, Lewis is torn; she knows that with enough planning and skill the ALF can burn down a facility without harming anyone physically, but no one can protect those called out to a blaze. The scenario of a dead or injured public servant frightens her deeply; her father is a fireman in Fort Worth, and while he remains squarely behind Lewis' activism, she knows he draws lines.
"When I first became a vegetarian my parents were worried about my health. So they researched it and they found it was more healthy, and they were very supportive," she says, adding that her entire family is now vegetarian or vegan. "I've been arrested several times, and my father's been very supportive. But I don't know how supportive he is of arson."
Waging a street-level confrontational ALF-type campaign is best suited for the young. Fortunately for the animal rights movement, the young are stepping up to the plate.
"I think radicalism is something a young person likes becoming involved in," says Samudio, the professional temp worker. "The risks they're taking are more acceptable. They have no house at risk, no career at risk, no kids...I'm seeing people get committed at a younger age, their mid-teens and 20s, and sticking around for a while."
At night, when the videos run out, some of the group sit on the porch of the rundown house and talk about stuff you'd imagine 20-something activists talk about: war stories of heroes of protests, smelly feet, corporate influences at universities, the miraculous gastrointestinal soothing powers of Bean-o, what a bitch it is to find a sympathetic attorney and how people "just don't get it."
Stampy mills around until he finds a spot on a sleeping bag and settles into an easy sleep. Clouds cross the bright, fat moon, and weird shadows dance on the lawn.
Discussion continues, slowly winding down into blankets and sleeping bags. A group member from Austin, the point man of the crusade to free Stampy, discusses a comrade who has drifted away from the struggle, and whether he calmed down or simply sold out. "Once you learn something you can't go back," he says with determination.
No one completes the next obvious, scary thought: What happens if you learn something new?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- That's It Then: The Cowboys 2015 Season Gets Put Out of Its Misery
- The Cowboys' 5 Biggest Thanksgiving Turkeys
- Live From London: Your Holiday Weekend Weather Apocaforecast