In 1997, Peter Young and another activist raided six fur farms in the U.S., releasing an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 mink and 100 fox. Soon after the sixth raid, a farmer in Wisconsin notified police that a suspicious car was driving past a mink ranch. Alerted by an FBI report regarding recent animal liberations on fur farms, police stopped Peter and the other activist, who refused to consent to a search of the vehicle. The car was impounded while authorities waited on a search warrant. When the car was finally searched, police discovered incriminating evidence, including addresses of fur farms with notations indicating their size, fence structure, parking availability and proximity to nearby homes. By then, Peter and the other activist were gone.
Peter was wanted by the FBI for seven and a half years before being arrested in California in 2005. He faced a total of 82 years in prison. Peter’s lawyer got the felony portion of his indictment dismissed, and he was sentenced to two years in federal prison. In court, a defiant Peter Young said that his only regret was not doing more damage. He was released from prison on February 1, 2007.
Peter, you are best known in the activist community for liberating minks and foxes from fur farms in South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. How have those events changed your life?
They brought me to some of our culture’s darkest corners, from hellish animal sheds to dim jail cells. From those experiences and others I have learned animal liberation is more effectively taken than asked for. I learned determined individuals can accomplish in one night what a million protests can never achieve.
So do you think there is any place in the movement for protesting and other types of campaigns?
I’m more fluid in my position on tactics than could be assumed. This is a result-oriented movement, and ultimately we must stand behind that which brings results. I am for protesting when it works, and am against it when it merely provides us the illusion of changes. Being “active” is worse than nothing when it gives us the illusion of being effective. And when protesting works, as has been the case with certain weak-link targets like foie gras restaurants, then it is absolutely to be celebrated as a tactic. Such is the case with distributing Why Vegan pamphlets: approximately 2% of people who read the pamphlet change their diet. When we are distributing millions of Why Vegan leaflets, this is huge. I will say for every protest-victory, I assess the time-costs and inevitably consider we could have avoided months of protest and hundreds of people-hours with one well-calculated act of economic sabotage. We have selective vision in regards to our victories. The last and largest foie gras restaurant in Salt Lake City, which had been protested for months, stopped selling foie gras after anonymous individuals shut down their gas main during a busy Saturday night, and later took out several large glass windows. That was all it took. We should fight smarter, not harder.
What can you say about the support you got from the movement while serving your sentence?
I received more letters than I could answer, more books than I could read, and more visits than I could accept. Asking people to take risks for animals while not being there to support them if arrested is like sending someone down the Colorado River without a life raft. While the urgency of what’s happening in farms and labs will always incite many to act outside the law, these actions will increase in correlation with the quality of the support offered to those who are caught. It is invaluable for those working in darkness to deliver animals from cages to know if they are arrested, they will be taken care of. For those who support prisoners, this is the true return on their investment: You allow those who have not been caught to do their work.
How do other inmates and prison guards treat animal activists in jail?
Having a case such as mine was an asset with prisoners and guards, and a liability with prison staff higher up the chain. With prisoners, I was given a significant amount of respect for being looked at as someone who “stood up for his beliefs.” That non-human animals were the beneficiary of this stand was irrelevant — it was the willingness to put talk into action which is respected in convict culture. This translated into many privileges and alliances which allowed my prison time to pass with little friction.
With senior staff in the Bureau of Prisons, the political nature of my case brought them to mark me as a security threat. This manifested in countless ways, including jail/prison security-level placement that was not in sync with the relative seriousness of my “offenses,” increased mail screening, stretches in solitary, and more. In recent weeks there has been a development in this realm, as we’ve seen several green scare and SHAC prisoners moved to maximum-security prisons. This is an unsettling trend and frightening evidence of the lunacy of those in power: running a website or destroying property is a more egregious crime than murder or kidnapping — crimes committed by those I shared a medium-security prison with.
Overall, I found being imprisoned for animal liberation activity was more of a benefit than a detriment, while being a little of both. It helped with prisoners and hurt me with prison staff.
What was the impact of your raids on the fur industry?
At least two of the six farms had to close. Final damage estimates were over $250,000. Approximately 2,000 animals were never recaptured, and farmers were forevermore kept up at night wondering if tonight was the night their farm would be raided — or, more importantly, wondering if they might be better off growing soybeans. The number of mink farms today is almost half of what it was when I was indicted, and I trust many fur farmers have asked themselves this question and made the right decision as a direct effect of ALF raids.
Did prison change your opinion of direct action in any way?
I never had any illusions about the consequences for direct action. I accepted the possibility of prison and, when weighed against the potential benefits and relative small chance of being caught, I made a decision. And I stand by my stance that it was the right decision. As long as direct action works, potential consequences will be irrelevant to those who answer to a higher law.
Other activists who have been jailed for their activism have told me they now focus on above-ground tactics because sitting in jail does not help animals. What’s your take on that position?
It’s a false dichotomy. In 20 years of ALF activity and over one thousand actions, only a small handful of people have ever been arrested. And of those, only a very few have served actual prison time. The number of people caught is statistically infinitesimal. It is not a “direct action equals prison versus above-ground activism equals freedom” equation. This has become more apparent as we see increased cases of people who thought they were working within the law, yet were still sent to prison — such as the SHAC defendants or those arrested in Austria. At this point, being effective is a crime, not transgressing the letter of the law.
The bigger point is that direct action versus other activism is a totally artificial division. It is all a manifestation of the same impulse, the same ethic.
Most who have been arrested, myself included, made easily avoidable mistakes which can be learned from. We must be honest about the fact that one has a statistically insignificant chance of getting arrested for direct action.
You mentioned the Austrian activists who were arrested. Governments around the world are using intimidation to suppress animal activism. What effect do you think the arrests of activists like Martin Balluch and others will have on the movement?
It will be met with both cowering weakness and galvanization. I’ve watched many people take a quit exit from activism after the smallest trace of repression — receiving an FBI visit, for example — and these high-profile arrests will filter out many weak links in our movement. My best hope for such people is that they will continue to be active in outreach efforts less likely to attract FBI attention.
On the other side, they are playing with fire when they arrest activists who work above ground and within the law. The only message that is sent to those who are in this for life is: You’re going to prison either way; it’s best to work in the dark of night where the risks are greatly reduced.
What other forms of activism do you feel are effective?
Vegan outreach in all its forms. Absolutely one of the best things you can do for animals.
Speaking of veganism, does an animal activist have to be vegan?
Veganism is too often viewed as a symbolic boycott when it is more accurately framed as something that has a direct effect on the lives of animals today. I’m not vegan to withhold money from animal abusers; I’m vegan because I’m sparing animals suffering in the here and now.
If you’re not vegan, you’re making clear that doing even the bare minimum to help animals is beneath your will. Veganism is not just another tool in the toolbox. It is the bare minimum.
You’re an inspiration to many activists. Who are your heroes in the movement?
We are best to keep an eye on our results and not those of others. I have no heroes and would encourage others to drop theirs. Don’t look up to your heroes, become them.