Thunder Down Under: Australian Animal Liberation Activists Mix Courage with Creativity
from No Compromise Issue 25

By Ned Kelly

Call it “the lunch heard around the world.” Last November, Australian activist Ralph Hahnheuser apparently entered a paddock crammed full of tens of thousands of sheep destined for export to the Middle East. He then allegedly fed the sheep a small amount of shredded pizza ham, rendering the animals unfit for human consumption under Islamic dietary laws.

The results were explosive. In the wake of Hahnheuser’s action, newspapers and television stations across the globe focused on the live export issue. Many press reports discussed the incredible suffering endured by animals transported overseas. Forced to delay their shipment of animals, the livestock export company accrued a significant financial loss.

It may have been the most controversial protest undertaken by a member of Animal Liberation Australia, but it is not the first time that Aussie activists have taken dramatic direct action on behalf of animals. In fact, Animal Liberation Australia has built a reputation for creativity and courage. Activists around the world have increasingly watched—and emulated—this group.

But what makes ALA tick? How have Australian grassroots activists managed to craft such an effective, nationwide organization? The truth is, ALA is a national organization in only the loosest sense.

Thinking Locally

Animal Liberation Australia was founded in the late 1970s by Christine Townend, who grew up on a farm and was deeply influenced by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation.

“She advertised in the paper for like-minded individuals, and four people turned up,” explains ALA activist Jo Bell. “Christine registered the name Animal Liberation Australia and began to campaign. Gradually people in other states of Australia contacted her and requested her permission to use the name Animal Liberation to form branches.”

These days, six separate Animal Liberation organizations operate in Australia. They share the same name, but they are autonomous organizations with their own constitutions, campaigns, personnel, and operating style. Hahnheuser, for example, is associated with Animal Liberation New South Wales, which has offices in Sydney and Newcastle.

Bell, who works in ALA-NSW’s Sydney office, says this local control is critical. “As I say the Branches are autonomous and (as with marriage) things work better if the parties are not constantly underfoot!” Bell writes in an email.

But there is some national coordination. “The branches join together for certain campaigns and also with other organizations in their own State of course, but we don’t have to go through the exhaustive process of obtaining Australia-wide agreement for every single campaign,” Bell writes. “This is a really big country and it is just impractical to combine for everything.”

Farm Inspections

The different branches often emulate each other’s strategies. One example can be found in a tactic that ALA has become famous for: inspection raids on factory farms, an idea that Mark Pearson, executive director of ALA-NSW, decided to implement after seeing it work well elsewhere.

“In the early-mid 90s, the Victorian Branch, under Patty Mark, had been doing a lot of inspection raids on battery hen farms,” Bell writes. “Mark suggested we have a go at piggeries and we did. The pigs were not only crated, but tethered as well--that is to say METAL collars, with great open sores underneath them. We had received many complaints from farm workers--which we passed on to RSPCA, police and Minister for Agriculture--no action.”

“So a bunch of us went in and videotaped the poor animals and gave the tape to TV,” Bell continues. “Big fuss and farmers running for cover but nothing happened.”

A few months later, the ALA activists went to the pig farms again. But this time, they took along a member of the state legislature: Lee Rhiannon, an MP from the Green Party in New South Wales.

“The media ran with the story and this time we got action,” Bell writes. “The minister banned the use in NSW of tethers for pigs. Because of all the adverse publicity, that particular farm improved things for their pigs and got rid of the crates.”

Open Rescue

Some branches have gone beyond inspections. For example, Animal Liberation Victoria supports and manages the Action Animal Rescue Team, an undercover rescue and surveillance group formed in 1993.

ALA-Victoria’s website explains the rescue team’s mission this way: “Committed activists routinely save the lives of unattended and neglected animals who are left sick and dying in factory farms. Rescue team members also document (with video footage and photographs) the conditions for animals in factory farms, feedlots, live export and abattoirs.”

The most impressive result has been the large number of rescued and homed animals. But the Action Animal Rescue Team has also gained sympathetic news coverage for farmed animals.

A rescue mission conducted last September at a farm that supplies chicken body parts to Kentucky Fried Chicken saved 15 birds from certain death. The rescue also yielded video footage and photos that shocked the country. The Sunday Telegraph, one of Australia’s largest newspapers, ran the photos alongside an editorial condemning the farm.

Staying Strong

All this success hasn’t come without costs. Activists with ALA-Victoria have been arrested, and Hahnheuser has been called a terrorist and sued for damages.

But the diverse groups that make up ALA are still going strong.

“I can’t speak of what other groups do, but direct action is a potent tool—used intelligently without abuse or violence,” Bell writes. “And when people actually SEE how the animals live, they don’t like it. Hard evidence is the key—plus lots and lots of persistence.”

For more information about ALA, go to