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Up for Liberation The Satya Interview with Peter Young
In the fall of 1997, 8,000 to 12,000
mink and 100 fox were released from six fur farms across South Dakota,
Iowa and Wisconsin. According to police records, in each incident, fencing
was cut, breeding records destroyed, and cages opened allowing the animals
to escape to their native habitat. These actions were carried out anonymously.
Several days after the sixth release, a farmer notified police that an
unknown car was seen passing a mink ranch in Sheboygan, WI. Within minutes,
police surrounded the car. Unknown to the car’s occupants, Peter
Young and a friend, the FBI had issued an alert to authorities across five
states to detain drivers of a red sedan seen near farms under “suspicious
circumstances.” After refusing consent to a search, their vehicle
was impounded pending application of a search warrant. The warrant was
granted and the search turned up items including pages of fur farm addresses
with notations indicating their size, fence structure, parking availability
and proximity to nearby homes.
Ten months later, a grand jury indicted Peter and another activist on four counts
of “Disrupting Interstate Commerce” and two counts of “Animal
Enterprise Terrorism.” Peter Young went underground. Seven and a half years
later he was arrested on a petty misdemeanor charge at a Starbucks in San Jose,
CA. A fingerprint scan revealed his status as a federal fugitive. In September
2005 Peter became the first convicted under the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection
Act, pleading guilty to two counts of Animal Enterprise Terrorism, and was sentenced
to the maximum of two years in federal prison, where he sits today. Sangamithra
Iyer had a chance to ask to 29 year-old Peter Young about his struggle for liberation.
How did you first become involved in animal activism?
I became vegan in 1994 through my involvement in the punk rock and straight edge
hardcore music scenes. Bands like Raid were part of a unique sub cultural phenomenon
in the early/mid 90s which combined an anti-drug message with militant animal
liberation politics. Two weeks after seeing Earth Crisis play in Seattle, I attended
my first animal rights meeting at the University of Washington.
And in liberating animals?
One evening a friend arrived at my door, shaken. In walking home through an industrial
district outside downtown Seattle, he discovered a chicken slaughterhouse. He
took me there and it was true—wholesale animal slaughter in my own backyard.
It was no longer something that happened far away in the countryside, but less
than two miles from home. Several of us began investigating business directories
and animal industry trade journals to see what else was in our neighborhood.
The answer shocked us—everything.
We began taking drives to nearby labs, slaughterhouses, factory farms and fur
wholesalers. These were not reconnaissance missions for illegal activity, but
field trips to satisfy our curiosity. At the time, it felt as if only the world
knew what we were learning, it would all go away. So we started taking pictures.
Most would be surprised how far they can get with bravery and a little finesse.
I remember walking onto the kill floor of a large slaughterhouse at two in the
morning via a door that was never locked, exploring labs that looked like office
buildings, finding a vivisection breeder’s entire clientele list in their
dumpster and much more. The mystique soon washed away and we had to swallow the
reality that the imaginary wall between us and the horrible atrocities had come
down. There was nothing left but a lot of addresses and empty excuses.
Why did you focus on fur farms?
We began to sit back and weigh the risk/benefit ratio for various actions, asking
where our efforts would be most effective. Data circulating on the survivability
of ranch raised mink in their native North American habitat led us to visit some
nearby mink ranches. Nothing we’d seen seemed quite as feasible or with
so great a life-saving potential as what we saw at those farms. Two to five mink
per cage, five to 10,000 cages per farm… The idea sold itself.
In short, when you’re staring at a list of fur farms four weeks before
pelting season, and there is a car with a full tank of gas in the driveway, there
is little room for negotiation with your conscience. You get in the car and drive.
You have almost completed your two-year federal sentence. What has it been like?
It has been 20 months of unabated turbulence. I have been in seven jails, one
prison, spent weeks in transit. Twenty percent of my time has been in solitary
confinement and after my federal case I endured two additional multi-count state
indictments from South Dakota.
There is a lot more to going to prison than just “going to prison.” Prison
is a psychological journey and assault. The theft of identity, endless noise,
and limited perspectives all take a toll. And after so much time spent without
stimulus, you are forced to retreat into your mind and only hope to find your
way back out when the experience is over. Then there are valuable lessons of
patience, social flexibility, appreciation of small things, and all those things
learned from time spent looking backward. I also learned that the parts of prison
you think will be bad are not, and the parts that are bad are nothing you would
imagine. I’ve learned I can take the worst they have thrown at me.
Can you talk more about the recent charges from the State of South Dakota?
This indictment pertains to the release of 2,400 mink from the Turbak Mink Ranch
in Watertown, SD nine years ago. On December 22, 2005, the state charged me with
three felony counts of third degree burglary, vandalism, and animal facility
trespass. The cumulative maximum sentence is 22 years. Now, after ten months
of delays, South Dakota has filed extradition paperwork with the prison. I expect
to be in a Watertown, SD jail by the time this goes to print. This farm subsequently
closed its doors. As you can imagine, bringing charges for a nine year-old property
crime is almost unheard of. They were filed soon after my federal sentencing,
and unquestionably brought by a combination of the media attention around my
case, my somewhat defiant statement to the court, and the political vendetta
of one small town prosecutor.
The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act just passed in Congress. What are your thoughts
about this and the future of animal rights activism in this country?
We’ve reached the criminalization of the classic protest formula. AETA
brings offenses such as “nonviolent physical obstruction of an animal enterprise…that
may result in loss of profits…of not more than $10,000” into the
realm of federal prosecution. Although disconcerting, it’s necessary to
remember when it comes to our fundamental message, most of the public is on our
side. When informed they find the treatment of animals in agriculture and science
morally reprehensible. It will take more than the stroke of a pen for people
to accept protest activity as “terrorism.” So although they have
criminalized us down to our smallest effort, they will be unable to enforce this
to its fullest potential without great difficulty. In private I have had many
prison guards, U.S. Marshals and others express support for my actions. Even
in society’s most heartless corners, a sense that what we do to animals
is unjust exists. This is my most optimistic take on our future.
In this climate, maintaining ourselves as a movement of fearful people is not
just dangerous, it is suicide. We cannot fold or drop out under the lightest
of pressures. We have to stoically vow on behalf of our movement that we will
stand firm and continue our work with unwavering resolve. For the sake of all
those animals we fight for, I can only hope we do.
What can activists learn from your conviction and sentencing?
There are many lessons that can be taken from my case. First, that you can be
offered a plea bargain involving giving up names of friends and associates, throw
it back in their face, and at the end of the day receive the same sentence offered
in the plea. Second, future collaborators should take note, prison is a lonely
place without mail, friends or integrity. And finally, a willingness to put oneself
on the line to save lives [does not necessarily make you qualified to participate]
in a liberation. Some people will fold before the fingerprint ink has dried.
My co-defendant Justin Samuel was not a man who belonged within a thousand light
years of anything requiring resolve. Before his second court date he offered
his full cooperation with the government in my prosecution.
There is also the investigative zeal of authorities in breaking down activists,
even those who remain within legal bounds. In the months following my arrest,
the FBI combed through thousands of pages of paperwork and address books believed
to be linked to me and proceeded to question dozens of people believed to be
friends of mine across the country. Search warrants of several homes were executed,
cars were impounded, and phone records subpoenaed. Clearly they were not seeking
information on nine year-old mink releases. They wanted more names for their
Lastly, I hope the support I’ve received reassures those continuing to
carry out rescue missions. Should they encounter a legal entanglement, they will
be taken care of. I have been well supported since my arrest, and I hope the
right people are aware of this.
Do you have any regrets?
I will let the burden of guilt and regret fall on the bloodthirsty killers of
What do you hope to do when you get out?
Continue doing my part within the strict confines of my lengthy probation. I
may depart from some animal liberation prisoners of the past in that I feel education
is a necessary part of liberation, and look forward to helping in this less direct
but crucial approach. I will never become the person who feels he’s “paid
his dues.” The problem did not go away because I spent a little time eating
through a slot in the door. So long as the problem remains, so should we all.
I’m not going anywhere.
What can people do to help?
Ask yourselves if we are a force for change, or just a “lifestyle,” a “consumer
movement”? These are questions we must ask ourselves as we continue to
fight our way towards cultural progress and movement relevancy. A time will come
when events are swung into motion that will bring our message to the minds of
the public in a profound and lasting way. When our tide will rise. We might do
well to ask ourselves what this shift of culture and consciousness will require,
and bring it to pass.
Aside from this, we just barely covered the retainer fee for an attorney to fight
these charges and we remain in debt from previous legal fees. This leaves me
with very little money for stamps and vegan food. Contributions for living expenses
are endlessly appreciated. Lastly, jail is a vastly sparser experience than prison,
and when I am transported to Watertown letters, books, photos, and magazines
will be more appreciated than ever. My gratitude to all who have assisted me
since my arrest is beyond measure, as is my respect for all those who have not
given up. But most importantly, at the end of the day, I ask all those with heart
to remember “help” is best applied to those prisoners who are without