Animal Activists Are Shouting Out Their Crimes Online

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A worker picks up a caged steelblue mink at Saltykovskoye fur farm on November 5, 2014 near Moscow, Russia. Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Newscom

Nicole Kissane and Joseph Buddenberg spray-painted the word killer in red on the front of Furs by Graf in San Diego, glued the locks, and sprayed smelly butyric acid into the store. The animal rights activists then walked to the homes of the store’s elderly owners, where they spray-painted animal murderer in red on an old recreational vehicle and poured muriatic acid on the driveway to stain the concrete. From there, they went to the home of the owners’ daughter, where they painted her pickup truck red and dumped muriatic acid on her porch, according to federal prosecutors. About a week after the vandalism at Furs by Graf in July 2013, a website called DirectAction.info posted an anonymous dispatch.

"In the early morning hours of July 16, 2013, anarchists in San Diego took action on behalf of the millions of fur-bearing animals who are trapped, enslaved and killed to sustain the global fur industry,” it read, describing the damage done at each location. “These actions were taken to vocalize the cries of the millions of wild beings yearning for freedom. This is in vain unless it inspires others to liberate and sabotage. Every fur farm prisoner deserves a jail break.”

04_07_JosephNicole_01 Joseph Buddenberg, left, and Nicole Kissane were arrested on July 24 and indicted on federal animal enterprise terrorism charges. Support Nicole and Joseph

Later that month, Kissane and Buddenberg withdrew $300 from a bank in Escondido, California and drove for 18 hours to Plains, Montana, where they snuck onto Fraser Fur Farm in the early morning and freed a bobcat, court papers state. “Emaciated and filthy, his beauty was evident even through the matted fur and traumatized stare, with his bushy jowls and black ear tufts,” read the DirectAction.info dispatch that was posted about two weeks later. “This should be a lesson to Frazier [sic]. If you ever again hold wild creatures captive on your land, we will breach it to free them.”

Two days after releasing the bobcat, Kissane and Buddenberg cut the chicken-wire fence behind the Moyle Mink Ranch in Burley, Idaho, avoided the security guard who patrolled the property at night, snuck on the farm and released about 3,000 mink from their cages, according to prosecutors. “Their initial timidity quickly became a cacophony of gleeful squealing, playing, cavorting, and swimming in the creek that runs directly behind the Moyle property,” stated the dispatch posted on DirectAction.info the next day under the title, “First Fur Farm Raid of the Summer!”

Kissane and Buddenberg continued releasing mink and vandalizing businesses that used animal products throughout the summer and fall of 2013. The pair drove over 40,000 miles to free almost 7,000 mink from farms in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and did more than $400,000 worth of damage, federal authorities said. Dispatches were posted on DirectAction.info after most of their raids. When the pair was arrested and indicted on federal animal enterprise terrorism charges last year, the FBI press release said, “To publicize their crimes, the defendants drafted ‘communiqués’ describing their conduct and posted them on websites associated with animal rights extremists.” In court papers filed less than a month before Kissane and Buddenberg pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy to commit animal enterprise terrorism, prosecutors described the communiqués in court papers that read, “This encourages others to follow in their footsteps.”

This video was posted on Directaction.info and claims to be footage of a July 31, 2015 raid on an Ontario mink farm that resulted in the release of about 300 mink.  

DirectAction.info posts dispatches from animal activists across the world announcing their crimes—or “actions”—with about 140 “communiqués” last year describing crimes in the U.S., Europe, South America and Asia. Sample headlines include, “Hundreds of Hares Liberated” in Italy, “Rabbits Rescued from Lab Breeder” in Brazil and “Partridges Freed” in Turkey. The page lists a West Palm Beach, Florida, address and a data encryption code, which activists use to securely send in their dispatches—often from public computers at libraries or FedEx office locations. Many of the same dispatches are also posted on the website for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office. DirectAction.info—which calls its webpage “Bite Back”—didn’t respond to a Newsweek email seeking comment.

Publishing online accounts of your crimes—even anonymously—brings significant risks. Federal agents check sites like DirectAction.info regularly to learn of animal rights-motivated crimes that local cops don’t always flag up to them. Publicity can increase law enforcement attention. And if the activist is arrested, their dispatches are noted in the indictment and throughout the ensuing plea discussions and sentencing. So why do it?

Two reasons, explains animal rights journalist Will Potter. The first is to release the animals and cause economic harm to the business. The second is to spark a discussion about how our society treats animals—and with that goal in mind, activists publish online accounts of their actions. “So part of [the goal of] these illegal actions and these communiqués is to point a spotlight on what is happening and say this is why we did this and we had no other choice,” Potter tells Newsweek. “It’s a guaranteed opportunity to have that voice heard. Whenever these communiqués are written and there’s an explanation for why an action took place, it’s overwhelmingly then referred to in the press or by the FBI pointing to that motivation.” The publicity can also make clear to business owners that the activists want them to close their doors, said Ben Rosenfeld, a San Francisco civil rights attorney who has represented many radical activists. “I can’t speak for anyone specifically, but generally sending communiques serves the purpose of letting these exploitive animal industries know that people are watching and some people are willing to take the law into their own hands in a nonviolent way,” Rosenfeld says. Tyler Lang, who was convicted of animal enterprise terrorism for releasing 2,000 mink and spraypainting “Liberation is Love” at an Illinois farm in 2013, told Newsweek that activists publicize their actions so they can define their own motives and and goals. “The message ‘Liberation is Love’ was a response to groups like Fur Commission USA using their influence to try to paint activists as ‘terrorists’ rather than as individuals motivated by compassion to save animals who current laws have clearly failed,” Lang said in an email.  

03_23_Minks_02 From left, Tyler Lang and Kevin Johnson. Support Kevin and Tyler

The communiqués have been vital to most prosecutions of animal activists—making them a “double-edged sword” that attracts the desired publicity but can also link suspects to specific crimes or be used by prosecutors to argue for harsher federal charges under the federal animal enterprise terrorism act, Potter says. “In this case, if there wasn’t a communiqué, if there wasn’t a movement affiliated with these actions, it would just be a property crime. But now we’re talking about terrorism because there’s a nexus and a connection to animal rights activism.” Potter also said the main tactic used by animal rights activists has shifted from releasing animals to filming undercover videos that reveal farm conditions, with those videos posted on DirectAction.info and the North American Animal Liberation Press Office.

The controversial Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was passed in 2006—critics say it wrongly brands protesters and vandals as terrorists—and applies to anyone who “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property used by an animal enterprise.” After the passage of the AETA in 2006, there was a “dramatic drop” in the number of communiqués, as activists learned that their writing was used to classify defendants as terrorists. “I don’t think the number of crimes dropped off, but the communiqués changed pretty radically,” Potter says.

Buddenberg was one of the first people charged under the then-new AETA in 2008 for holding threatening protests at the homes of University of California Berkeley professors who used animals in their research, but a federal judge tossed out the charges in 2010 because prosecutors weren’t specific enough about the charges against him. They didn’t repeat their mistake. The January trial memo that outlined the case against Buddenberg and Kissane details everything, from how the unemployed duo funded their epic cross-country trips—stealing from stores like REI and CVS and selling the pilfered items on eBay—to how a chef caught Buddenberg writing “Directaction.info” on a bathroom wall of the University of California at Berkeley dining hall where he worked. The memo describes “militant environmental groups” like the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front but stops short of saying that Buddenberg and Kissane are members. “These groups aren’t groups in the traditional sense. There is no leader, although there are influential individuals in the movement,” the memo states. “Like-minded people are encouraged to act for themselves and do what they can to effect change.”

An Idaho mink farmer said he didn’t mind the activists “bragging” about their crimes online, but he did object to them attacking the industry. “If you’re against abortion, you don’t need to go around blowing up abortion clinics. If you don’t like to hunt, don’t go hunting,” said the farmer, who asked not be named because he fears activists targeting his farm. “But the idea that we live in a country where people want to impose their values on you and force you to change your living, that’s completely un-American.” The farmer also said freed mink die quickly, with the animals getting run over by cars or starving to death when the sudden influx of predators exhausts the food supply. The recaptured animals also suffer: the farms keep mink penned in the same pairs their entire life, so the animals fight viciously when they are caught and thrown in with an unfamiliar new pen-mate.

Buddenberg is scheduled to be sentenced May 2 and Kissane will be sentenced in June. If the judge accepts the plea deal, he will do two years in prison and she will do six months. Defense attorneys for the pair declined to comment. But while Buddenberg was confined to home detention in November as his case inched forward, he showed an unabated desire to help animals and draw public attention online to their welfare. “For anyone who can help, there's a turkey in the middle of the street near my apartment. Oakland, 56th st and San pablo. I'm on house arrest so there's not much I can do,” he posted on Facebook.