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March 2004
Opening Doors and Eyes to Animal Suffering

The Abolitionist Interview with Patty Mark

Known as the pioneer of the global open rescue movement, Patty Mark is president of Australian animal advocacy organization Animal Liberation Victoria. In this interview with The Abolitionist, the publication of Compassion Over Killing, Mark talks about her 25 years working for animal liberation and explains what an “open rescue” entails.

When did you first become interested in animal issues and what was it that sparked the interest?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt drawn to animals. I’d have long conversations with them and always felt extreme joy and peace when animals were near. However, I also ate them. I grew up in a small farming town in southern Illinois and don’t remember ever hearing the word vegetarian. In 1974, I moved to Europe with my husband. We decided to bicycle overland to Melbourne. While cycling through an isolated area of Greece, we saw a herd of goats with their little kids. I skidded to a halt, as that familiar excitement was flowing through my veins...animals! They were friendly, and we spent a fair time interacting with them. A half hour later we stopped for lunch at a roadside cafe. There were three huge covered pots cooking on the open fire. One pot was goat’s head soup, complete with the head. I was 24 years old and it finally dawned on me where meat came from. I went vegetarian on the spot. I believe one of the most important aims of our animal movement is helping people with the vegetarian option—how I wish I had come upon it sooner than I did.

Can you describe the first time you entered a factory farm?
In 1978 I read [Peter Singer’s] Animal Liberation. I was shocked and distressed at what I read—I could barely read the section on vivisection, and the enormity of factory farming overwhelmed me. I naively thought that getting rid of the most obvious cruelty—the battery cage—may take two years, and once people knew how badly these birds were treated, it would be banned and their eyes would then be open to other cruelty. I worked closely with the bureaucrats at the Department of Agriculture. I would ring up and ask questions and [for them] to show me the factory farms. Back then, they would always happily oblige (20 years later I was banned from the Department of Agriculture).

The first Melbourne battery hen shed I visited was small with only two open-sided sheds, each with four rows of single-tier cages sitting above a huge pile of feces dropping from the hens above. Two things stick in my mind from that visit. One was the horrible non-stop screaming and squawking of the hens. This was not an automobile factory or a steel plant with heavy machinery, but a shed of tightly caged hens who normally would be quietly foraging in the grass or gently clucking. Another memory is a bald-looking hen trying over and over again to stick her claw under the baffle plate to retrieve her egg which had rolled down into the collection trough in front of the cages.

When did you come up with the idea for open rescues, and when was your first one? What was the public’s reaction? The media’s reaction?
The concept of open rescue evolved. It wasn’t so much a planned event as a culmination after 15 years of earnest, yet totally frustrating, campaigning (street marches, petitions, lobbying politicians, writing letters, street theatre, and humane education—all very needed and worthwhile endeavors), which was getting slow results. Ten years ago, I received a phone call from a country woman who worked inside a battery hen shed. I realized how very little I actually knew about battery hens. She spoke of huge enclosed sheds with cages five tiers high in endless rows holding seven hens or more. She told me the sick and injured hens were ignored and left to slowly die; many birds got body parts caught in the wire and were unable to move; they would be attacked and trampled by other birds; and dead hens were left to rot in the cages.

She said that birds would regularly flap out of the cages and fall into the manure pit below where there was no food and water. They would slowly dehydrate and starve, even though she often broke and threw eggs down for them.

I asked a friend to take a job at the place to confirm all that this woman was telling me. He only needed three days to see enough. I knew from experience that taking factory farming issues to the authorities accomplished nothing. One very brave member then offered to go inside the manure pit and get some footage of the hens who were dying. When I saw this footage on top of all I had been told, I immediately just wanted to go there and get them out. No other thought came to mind. It was like when one witnesses an accident: the immediate impulse is to try and help. It also crossed my mind that if I, a seasoned campaigner, didn’t at first believe this woman, how could we expect the general public to comprehend the situation without visual proof. So we organized a small group to go rescue these birds and to get further video of the conditions. The situation was so bad that there was no question of covering our faces or identity—it was the owners who needed to hide.

I also told a current affairs program what we were going to do and asked if they wanted to come along. After they saw the tape, they said yes! The rescue story, “The Dungeons of Alpine Poultry,” headlined nationally. Our open rescue team was born, and the public saw first-hand what was inside those huge windowless sheds dotting the countryside.

Have you seen a change in the reaction from the press to open rescues since they first began?
In the first few years, we always received excellent and widespread media coverage—nothing like this had happened before and the footage was always very dramatic and revealing. The public were shocked at what was happening to animals behind closed doors, and surprised at the extent people were willing to go to rescue them. The icing on the media cake was the subsequent police arrests and court cases after the farm owners pressed charges. The more media we received, the more tip-offs of other places we got.

The rescue team is ten years old this year, and it is harder and harder to get media coverage. Also, the intensive farming industry was forced to become more media savvy and they no longer press charges or react to any of our rescues, as they realize this will only give us more publicity and shed more light on the cruelty they are trying to keep hidden. We virtually now have the license to break and enter and rescue animals in Australian factory farms whenever we want. This is one area where perhaps the ALF [Animal Liberation Front] have the edge. Because we don’t damage property, we are no immediate threat to the industry; in fact we probably save them money by taking the sick and dying hens and removing the dead bodies from the cages so the other hens don’t become even more ill. Yet, our main goal of saving as many lives as we can and educating the public continues.

Has the reaction from the authorities changed since you first began openly rescuing animals?
Our biggest hurdle to getting prosecutions against the abuse and abandonment we find is, ironically, the RSPCA [Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals], the main body authorized by law in Australia to relay information in cruelty prosecutions. The police also have power under the Anti-Cruelty Acts to prosecute, but they invariably refer complaints to the RSPCA as the ‘experts.’ The RSPCA has consistently refused to act on evidence we give them. When they inspect properties we have exposed in the media, they claim they don’t find what we do and have even recommended the farm managers to update their security to keep us out. A few years ago, the RSPCA became business partners with Australia’s largest battery egg producer, one of the many farms we beg the RSPCA to prosecute!

What is the longest amount of time you’ve spent incarcerated for your rescues? Did it change your view of open rescues?
I’ve had countless hours in lock-up cells, but only two short times in prison, one for five days and one for ten days. It’s not a good place to be, and I have the utmost respect and regard for those animal rights prisoners who are incarcerated for the long haul. If anything, those times I’ve been denied my own personal freedom have only strengthened my resolve to do open rescues. There’s nothing like sitting in a cell for hours on end staring at the blank wall to imprint on one’s mind the dreary nothing we give the battery hens day in and day out. Plus, those individuals we are going in to help are not only denied any freedoms for their entire lives, but they are also being bullied or beaten (pigs), and they are sick or injured and neglected ad infinitum.

Do you feel Australia is closer or further away from a battery cage ban since the open rescue movement began?
Australia is definitely moving towards a ban on battery cages, especially as the open rescue movement spreads and keeps pressure on the producers, but it’s a slow process. The pendulum swings, and we were very close to an Australian ban on the cage in 2000 when all the State Ministers of Agriculture actually had such a motion on the agenda at their national meeting. The lobbying was fierce, and the egg industry, greatly alarmed, gathered its full momentum (and enormous financial backing). The motion was lost, but the issue was fully out in the public arena.
The sale of free-range and barn laid eggs has skyrocketed in this country. This does not make the rescue team that happy however, as we also do rescues at barn laid sheds and find heartbreaking cruelty and overcrowding. This on top of the fact that the commercial production of any type of eggs means all the male chicks are gassed, suffocated, blended or crushed at a day old because they’ll never lay eggs.

How do you cope with regularly witnessing such horrific misery? Have you ever felt burnt out? If so, how did you overcome it? If not, do you have any advice to give others to avoid burning out?
Once the hens are out safely and having their first sunbath or gently walking on the earth where they belong, the happiness floods in. The relief and sheer joy at seeing these fractured little birds enjoying their life are indescribable. But thoughts of the others are never out of my mind. Many in our movement are continually haunted by this. It can and does lead to burn-out. During the 25 years I’ve been active, I remember two big burn-outs, when one literally just has to stop, your body does it for you. It’s so important that activists remember to always have time off, time when they are not thinking and worrying about all the suffering. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that we are animals as well and equally deserve some moments of the joy and freedom we work so hard to get for others.

The open rescue movement has just started taking off in the U.S. What lessons would you like to impart to a new generation of rescuers after your decades of rescue work?
Catch your wave. It’s coming in big and you guys are so good at what you do. Your rescue teams leave us in your wake. Australia is so small numerically compared to the U.S.; we are like one state out of your 50. I only fully comprehended the enormity of the U.S. battery egg industry after open rescues shined some light. For instance, when Mercy for Animals exposed Buckeye Egg Farm in Ohio, they pointed out there were 162,300 hens per shed, and at Day Lay Egg Farm, 250,000 hens per shed. In Victoria (where Melbourne is located), our largest battery hen factory has 22,000 hens per shed—198,000 birds in total. This is less than the total number of hens in one of your sheds in one of your farms in one of your states. But how strongly you activists have risen to the challenge. The recent Compassion Over Killing open rescue exclusive in the New York Times opened America’s eyes. This is your wave and challenge—to keep their eyes open, to keep reminding the public over and over again what’s going on. Members of open rescue teams are crucial witness bearers and message senders. We are the animals’ photojournalists. The images we take in the sheds and the stories we tell of what we see will set these animals free in the long run.

I’ve been in the animal movement 25 years and 10 years ago I didn’t know what a manure pit was. If we are still learning, imagine what the public still has in front of them. Never despair and keep in mind that the important thing is that the photos are on the table, in the newspapers and on the TV screens.

This interview is an edited reprint from the Winter/Spring 2003 issue of The Abolitionist, the publication of Washington DC-based Compassion Over Killing. For back issues and to learn more about COK and the open rescues they do, see www.cok.net. Reprinted with kind permission. For more on Animal Liberation Victoria, visit www.alv.org.au.

 


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