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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”
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
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.
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 www.animal-lib.org.au.