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December 2006/January 2007
Locked 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 list.

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 the world.

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 a voice.

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