A Compassion Over Killing interview with Patty Mark that originally appeared in the Winter/Spring 2003 issue of The Abolitionist
Known as the pioneer of the global open rescue movement, Patty Mark is president of Australian animal advocacy organization Animal Liberation Victoria.
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, often three times a day. I grew up in a small farming town in southern Illinois and don’t remember ever hearing the word vegetarian, not even when I was at University in Champaign/Urbana. In 1974, I moved to Europe with my husband who was an Australian. 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 an abrupt 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 an outdoor roadside ‘cafe’. There were three huge covered pots cooking on the open fire. We didn’t speak Greek, so we motioned to the man to lift the lids and we’d then pick our lunch. 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?
Once in Melbourne, I had two children in two years and was very housebound. My husband, knowing I loved animals brought me home books about them, including one called 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 and the numbers of animals it involved overwhelmed me. By now it’s 1978 and I naively thought that getting rid of the most obvious crueltythe battery cagemay take two years, and once people knew how badly these birds were treated and how they suffered, it would be banned and their eyes would then be open to other cruelty. I put a sign in my local deli saying: HELP THE HENS and Animal Liberation Victoria was born. In the early days, we didn’t use the ‘v’ word; we thought people would think we were too radical or extreme. I worked closely with the bureaucrats at the Department of Agriculture. Even though I was from a country town, I really didn’t know that much about chickens and had never known one. I would ring up the Ag Department and genuinely ask them questions and to show me the factory farms. Back then they would always happily oblige (20 years later I was banned from the Department of Agriculture).
Thus began my visits to factory farms and abattoirs. The first Melbourne battery hen shed I visited was in 1979. It was a small set-up 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. Their incessant noise made it impossible to hear the Agriculture representative or the ‘farmer’. 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 which has never faded was 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. The farmer saw me standing there for quite some time watching her. (I sincerely was wondering what she was doing knowing so little at the time about hens and their behaviour). He said to me, “Oh she’s just broody and wants to sit on her egg.”
When did you come up with the idea for open rescues? When was your first open rescue? 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 earnest yet totally frustrating campaigning which was getting slow results. For 15 years, from 1978 to 1993, our group did all the normal types of campaigning such as street marches, petitions, lobby politicians, write letters, street theatre and humane educationall very needed and worthwhile endeavours. Then, ten years ago, I received a phone call from a country woman who worked inside a battery hen shed. I realised from speaking with her how very little I actually knew about battery hens. I found it hard to comprehend that all she was saying could be true. She spoke of huge enclosed sheds with cages five tiers high in endless rows holding seven hens or more. I was only aware of single-tiered cages of three to four birds in open-sided sheds at this point in time. She told me the sick and injured hens were ignored and left to slowly die in the cages. They would be attacked and trampled on by the other birds. Dead hens were left to rot in the cages, and many birds got body parts caught in the wire and were unable to move.
Then she told me the cages were on the second floor of the windowless shed, the ground level being an enclosed manure pit where the feces from the 50,000 hens would pile up over the year they were caged. 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 eggs and threw them down for them. What made her ring me was when other staff members starting using their lunch hour to do target practice on the weak and starving birds struggling in the pit. Often they only wounded the already weak birds who then flopped into the pooh to die.
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, and each night he rang me near tears. I knew from experience that taking factory farming issues to the RSPCA [Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] or other 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 organised a small group to go there to 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 identityit was the owners of this property who needed to hide.
I also rang a current affair program telling them 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 headlined nationally and it was called The Dungeons of Alpine Poultry. 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. Probably as nothing like this had happened before and the footage was always very dramatic and revealing. The public were rightly open-eyed and shocked at what was happening to animals behind closed doors, and surprised at the extent people were willing to go to rescue them (such as digging under walls and crawling through manure pits). The icing on the media cake was the subsequent police arrests and court cases after the farm owners pressed charges (initially only for trespass, later for theft of dying hens). The more media we received, the more tip-offs of other places we got.
However, the rescue team is ten years old this year, and it is harder and harder to get media coverage, as the media always craves a new angle. 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 realise this will only give us more publicity and shed even 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 individual lives as we can and documenting the situation to educate the public continues.
Has the reaction from the authorities changed since you first began openly rescuing animals?
Our biggest hurdle to getting cruelty prosecutions against the cruelty, abandonment and abuse we find in these sheds is, ironically, the RSPCA. In our state of Victoria, and generally Australia wide, the RSPCA is the main body authorised by law to lay information in cruelty prosecutions. The Police also have power under the Anti-Cruelty Acts to prosecute, but they invariably refer any complaints to the RSPCA as the ‘experts’. The RSPCA has consistently refused to act on any of the evidence we have given them, photographic/video/statutory declarations included. When they inspect properties we have exposed in the media, they claim they don’t see or find what we do and have even recommended the farm managers update their security to keep us out. A few years ago, the RSPCA gave an extra brutal hit to the animals by becoming business partners with Australia’s largest battery egg producer, one of the many farms we beg the RSPCA to prosecute! It’s a sad state of affairs in Australia when animal activists have to battle the RSPCA as much as the factory farmers.
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 after numerous arrests, 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.
Many animal advocates in the United States view you as a role model and have an immense amount of respect for you and your fellow rescuers. Can you tell us what your average day is like?
Do you feel Australia is closer or further away from ban on battery cages since the open rescue movement began?
This is very kind, but I am only one of many. Our rescues are first and foremost a team effort. Without the very loyal and committed dedication of each team member, there would be no rescues. The amount and level of personal sacrifice I’ve witnessed over the years from people helping out on the rescue team is a healing antidote to the enormous depths our humanity has plunged in its treatment of non-human animals. I include on our team those countless people who send us donations so we can continue our work, as we are all volunteers and mostly on low-incomes. As for my average day, there are 25 animals:dogs, cat, ducks, hens all sharing my home and garden with me, most of them rescued. These friends take up a bit of time, but I am the lucky one. And I have two grown children I love dearly. My son Noah is an integral member of the rescue team and my daughter Elsa helps me look after the animals here.
Australia is definitely moving towards a ban on battery cages, especially as the open rescue movement spreads to more states 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, and there are few Australians who now don’t know what a battery egg is. The distribution and sale of free-range and barn laid eggs has skyrocketed in this country in the past ten years, which is obviously a reaction to increased consumer awareness of how battery eggs are produced. This does not make the rescue team that happy however, as we do rescues at barn laid sheds and also find heart-breaking cruelty and over-crowding. 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. The current killing method is pouring hundreds of male chicks in huge industrial blenders whereby at the flick of a switch they are all liquefied into a ‘smoothie’.
At the moment, the pendulum is against us following the enormous disappointment in 2000 when the Ministers failed to ban the cage and instead only gave the hens slightly more space. This took the wind out of the sails, as never before had the Australian animal movement worked so hard as a united front against the battery cage. Combine this with the current worldwide concerns about terrorism, and animal rights issues have plummeted back into the shadows again. But, our wounded giant is regaining strength and the pendulum is coming back our way, and each time it swings we gain ground, as the public generally do not like what they see and learn. And this is exactly why open rescue is so very important. Open rescue is the best investigative journal the animals have because it ensures the facts and true pictures are there in the open for all to see.
How do you cope with witnessing such horrific misery on a regular basis? 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 safely out and having their first sun bath or gently walking on the earth where they belong, the happiness floods in. The sense of relief and sheer joy at seeing these fractured little birds enjoying their life is indescribable. But, like you point out, the thoughts of the others left behind in their sheer torture and misery are never out of my mind. Many of us in our movement are continually haunted by this. It can and does lead to burn-out. I remember two big burn-outs during the 25 years I’ve been active, 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 United States. 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. I’ve been so impressed by the work of COK, Mercy for Animals and Compassionate Action for Animals in your recent USA open rescues. Your rescue teams leave us in your wake. Australia is so small numerically compared to the USA; we are like 1 state out of your 50. I only fully comprehended the enormity of the USA 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 COK open rescue exclusive in The New York Times opened America’s eyes. This is your wave and challengeto 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. I was so traumatised when I found the hen drowning in her own feces in the dungeons of Alpine Poultry ten years ago. COK now sends me the exact same images from the manure pits in the USA battery hen factories. Weak, forgotten and totally helpless little birds literally drowning in their own shit. And this, only the tip of their hell. The numbers in the sheds may vary, but the brutality of the battery cage is universal. (And in the piggeries and broiler sheds which I haven’t covered in this interview.) Open rescue teams in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the USA share photos of what we find in the sheds. Mix them up on a table and any photo could be from any country. 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.
Animal Liberation Victoria can be contacted at PO Box 15, Elwood 3184, Australia. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org