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Meat Is Murder, Arson Is Fun

This winter, the baddest vegetarians on earth bombed the biggest cattle ranch in the state. An inquiry into a combustible culture where protest meets terrorism.

Jesus is Lord of Coalinga. A billboard with a rainbow and a dove on it says so as you enter the San Joaquin Valley town of 19,100, just off I-5, 200 miles south of San Francisco. This is one of those shadow places that does our state’s dirty work— the stuff coastal Californians depend on but prefer not to have to look at. West, past the Jesus sign, Chevron’s oil rigs, like dozens of steel raptors, peck at the scorched earth. The other three big employers in Coalinga include a prison, a state hospital with a 1,500-bed psych ward, and, most famously, Harris Ranch.

You know the place. Or you’ve at least smelled it: an 800-acre, razor-wire-enshrouded feedlot, nearly unmissable as you hurtle down the unyieldingly flat, featureless freeway connecting the state’s two biggest metropolitan areas. There are few trees here and little grass. Just piles of corn and grain feed, dozens of big-ass trucks, and 125,000 cows standing in dust and dirt and their own manure.

In its antipastoral optics, Harris Ranch seems to stretch the very definition of the word ranch. (It is better known to some dark-humored I-5 travelers as, simply, “Cowschwitz.”) And yet, Harris isn’t any uglier than other factory farms. California’s largest beef producer is simply cursed with high visibility in a region that prefers to think of its cattle grazing on a Point Reyes bluff. So it’s no wonder that it was chosen earlier this year by militant activists affiliated with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) as the site of the most daringly conceived eco-terrorist action to strike California in years.

The operation, a pyrotechnic ballet that sent shock waves through this farming community and much of the beef industry, went down something like this. Around 3:40 a.m. on Sunday, January 8, a group of intruders dressed, no doubt, in their signature black masks and camo gear, cut through the razor-wire fencing on the feedlot’s perimeter. They snuck past a corps of private security guards and crept up to a row of 14 empty cattle-transport trucks. They then proceeded to rig a bomb. One day later, they boasted about what had happened next on the ALF website (creative grammar, spelling, and punctuation is theirs):

[C]ontainers of accelerant were placed beneath a row of 14 trucks with 4 digital timers used to light 4 of the containers and kerosene-soaked rope carrying the fire to the other 10 (a tactic adapted from Home Alone 2 [if you’re going to try this make sure to use kerosene, gasoline dries to quickly]). we weren’t sure how well this was going to work, so we waited until there was news reports before writing this. we were extremely pleased to see that all 14 trucks ‘were a total loss’ with some being “completely melted to the ground.”

The total damage, according to FBI reports, was estimated at $2 million. No animals or humans (or as the ALF prefers, “human animals”) were hurt. But that may have been pure dumb luck—according to the FBI, farmers often sleep in their trucks. There was little doubt that law enforcement would treat this as an act of domestic terror, not that the Feds would necessarily collar any perpetrators. Along with its spiritual brethren, the Earth Liberation Front, the ALF has racked up damages of more than $100 million in the United States alone, largely by arson, over the last three decades. That’s way out front of any other extremist groups. And yet, authorities’ track records for catching ALF members are, at best, middling. “Our immediate concern is that the offenders have not yet been identified,” the FBI said, rather feebly, in a statement about the Harris Ranch arson. “The danger that this presents to all of us in the community cannot be overstated.”

At the end of their anonymous communiqué the Harris Ranch assailants hinted at their untouchability: “until next time...” But maybe their success in avoiding capture isn’t because they are so damn smart or the FBI so damn clueless, but because the ALFers’ methods are too crude and archaic to warrant a muscular investigation. At a time when authoritarian regimes can be toppled with tweets, when small-scale street protests are catalyzed into worldwide social movements thanks to YouTube, when the Occupy brand can be discredited overnight by a mob of anarchists caught on iPhone cameras smashing shop windows in the Mission district, there is something distinctly old-fashioned about an anonymous, unwitnessed arson committed in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. Which begs the question, is there still a place for the ALF in this hyper-wired world? And, is there any moral justification for protest actions like these? And furthermore, are they even practical? To find out, I needed to ask the masked men (or women) myself. But first I had to find them.

According to sympathetic biographers, the ALF began in 1970s Britain, when law student Ronnie Lee rallied a ragtag Band of Mercy, a name harking back to a Victorian-era humane society, to seek better treatment for animals. What started with vandalizing hunters’ cars to thwart fox hunts soon turned into the Band’s first acts of arson: the burning of Hoechst Pharmaceuticals’ under-construction animal testing lab outside of London in 1973. After causing £46,000 worth of damage in two separate fires, the Band proudly left a note not unlike the one the Harris bandits would leave 39 years later: “The building was set fire to in an effort to prevent the torture and murder of our animal brothers and sisters by evil experiments. We are a non-violent guerrilla organization dedicated to the liberation of animals from all forms of cruelty and persecution at the hands of mankind. Our actions will continue until our aims are achieved.”

Lee would serve a year in prison for a similar action carried out in 1974. After another year of probation, he emerged seeking a new, more militant name for his organization. The Animal Liberation Front fit the bill, and the group’s open-source philosophy gave it the rare ability to stick and proliferate. “Anyone, so long as they follow at least a vegetarian—but preferably vegan—lifestyle, can go out and undertake an action and claim it as the Animal Liberation Front,” a British ALF press officer once said. “There is no hierarchy; there are no leaders. There is just a compulsion to follow your heart in pursuit of justice. That is why the ALF cannot be smashed, it cannot be effectively infiltrated, it cannot be stopped. You, each and every one of you: You are the ALF.”

Whatever you think of the rhetoric, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the ALF—this scrappy, leaderless band of idealist outlaws hell-bent on warring with the all-powerful persecutors of the animal kingdom. But before attempting to uncover the faces behind the violence, I wanted to see the crime scene. The chances of my making it onto Harris Ranch property without resorting to criminal tactics myself were minuscule. Mike Casey, vice president of risk management at the ranch, had blocked my requests for an interview or a site tour at every turn, citing the ongoing investigation. “Jaimal, I will not go on the record!” he barked at me over the phone on my third attempt. (Earlier he’d confided to a trade website, farmanddairy.com, that he didn’t want to give the ALF any unnecessary press.)

Outside in the dry, 95-degree heat, with the scent of dung on the wind, I parked along I-5 and proceeded to walk the razor-wire perimeter, taking photos. Dozens of signs alongside the ranch read, “No Stopping Anytime.” I expected to be accosted by burly men with guns—a waitress at Harris Ranch’s steakhouse three miles south had told me earlier that security had recently been “beefed up,” no pun intended—but nothing happened. Nobody said a word.

After scanning the perimeter and seeing nothing out of the ordinary (all of the burned-out trucks and arson evidence had apparently been hauled away), I moseyed back over to the Harris Ranch Inn, where I ran into an elderly security guard. He said he didn’t know if any progress had been made on the investigation, but from the ranch’s perspective, all was not lost. “They sure do seem happy about their new trucks up there,” he quipped.

In addition to enjoying that shiny new fleet of cattle transporters bought, presumably, on an insurer’s dime, ranch executives had to be satisfied with the rapid response by state lawmakers to the attacks. Only weeks after the arson, state Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Modesto), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, introduced Bill 1302, which, if passed, would raise agricultural arson like this one to aggravated arson, on par with attempted murder. Already, the ranchers could fall back on the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, pushed through by the big-ag and pharma lobbies in 2006, which makes destruction of property or intimidation of any “animal enterprise” prosecutable as terrorism.

But even as lawmakers turned the screws on eco-activists, the leaders of ALF seemed altogether sanguine. “The FBI is probably listening to this conversation right now,” said Jerry Vlasak, one of ALF’s most vocal press officers, when I called him after my visit to the ranch. The Los Angeles– based trauma surgeon, 54, claimed to have no clue about the Harris Ranch action, or any of ALF’s other alleged crimes. As Vlasak talked about veganism and animal testing, he seemed no different from a lot of liberal doctors who decry vivisection or praise a meat- and dairy-free diet for health. Then he started to praise blowing things up.

Bombing a meat-industry facility, Vlasak said, was “no different than the French liberationists freeing Jews from the Nazis.” (ALF members, I would learn, have a habit of comparing themselves to history’s greatest liberators, from Abraham Lincoln to the French Resistance to Nelson Mandela.) His logic went something like this: According to the USDA, around 10 billion animals are slaughtered every year in the United States for food alone. Since the vast majority of humans don’t have to eat meat to survive, the fact that we still choose to (to say nothing of the sins of animal testing) is pure “speciesism.” And fighting speciesism is synonymous with fighting any sort of oppression of the weak.

This anti-speciesist view is shared by peaceful animal rights activists and vegans all over the world, among them the famous Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, who popularized the term speciesism in the ’70s. What separates the ALF from the vast majority of animal rights activists is its militant tactics. “The state is perfectly happy to sit by and watch people do very ineffective things,” Vlasak said. “As soon as meat trucks are being burned, as soon as things are really happening that are likely to change the way the system works, then, of course, [the state is] going to crack down.”

Arguing that these actions actually only get animal rights supporters of all stripes labeled as terrorists, and laws tightened on legal activists, is a dead-end street with Vlasak. “When Mandela was fighting against apartheid,” he rationalized, “the more laws they passed and the longer they put people in prison for, the more crackdown there was. All that tells me is you’re being effective.”

Clearly not everyone agrees with Vlasak’s logic. The ag industry, for one, also likes to play the fascist card, comparing the ALF to neo-Nazis and Satan worshippers. But it’s not just the ALF’s mortal enemies who are at odds with their worldview. “These people think they’re helping animals,” Bruce Wagman, a renowned animal welfare attorney, told me when I visited him at his Stanford animal law class. “But they actually do a lot of harm to the cause.”

Wagman—a thin, mustached man of 55 with leaping leopards printed on his tie—is a 20-year vegan who has been giving factory farms trouble for his entire legal career. But he seems almost as annoyed with the ALF as Harris Ranch is. “I’ve been involved in cases over the years where we’ve literally freed thousands of abused animals and we’ve found those animals good homes,” Wagman said. “I challenge one person who has blown up a few trucks to say that.”

Wagman said that as activism goes, undercover videos by legal groups like Mercy for Animals are far more effective. A recent Mercy for Animals undercover investigation at a Conklin Dairy Farm in Ohio, for example, caught a worker stomping, punching, stabbing, and body-slamming calves and cows, seemingly for fun. The video has been viewed more than 700,000 times on YouTube, and the worker, Billy Joe Gregg, received eight months in jail. “People actually decide to change their lives when they see these videos,” Wagman said. “All blowing something up does is make people angry.”

Since more undercover videos have started damaging the meat and dairy industries, big-ag states like Iowa and Utah have passed so-called ag-gag laws that make undercover filming inside agricultural businesses a crime. Wagman lamented that this celebrated form of American journalism— with its roots in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—is now no different, in these states’ eyes, from ALF vandalism. That’s why Wagman’s annoyance with the ALF isn’t just doctrinal, it’s personal. “Every time I walk into a courtroom,” he said, “all the other side has to do is frame me as one of those crazy vegan terrorists and our side loses credibility.”

But how does one trackk down these deranged vegans? David Wagner, a computer security expert at UC Berkeley, suggested I go online. “The Internet has given rise to more of these open-source activist groups,” Wagner said, “because you can remain anonymous if you sufficiently cover your tracks. But what we’ve seen so far is that most people sooner or later slip up. And all it takes is once.”

Late at night, I scoured the ALF’s Facebook fan pages, looking for that one braggart who might cop to knowing someone who knows someone who blew up Harris’s trucks. But hours of searching—and a handful of phone chats with ALF fans—yielded only bizarre conversations and lots of sickening status updates.

Perhaps the best way to sniff out a classic bomb-and-run terrorist cell was with old-fashioned research techniques. So I hit the stacks. One of the activists I spoke to had alluded to a speech she’d heard by Peter Young, a notorious ALF activist gone vegan evangelist. I tracked down a recent book for which Young wrote the foreword: Love and Liberation: An Animal Liberation Front Story, and —look at this: Young mentions “sabotaging a mobile slaughter truck” right there on page 10. The book was published this February, which would mean Young had those words on the brain prior to the January arson.

It was back in 1997 that Young and a friend, Justin Samuels, got into a red Geo Metro and went on a mink- releasing spree. Over a period of two weeks, thousands of caged minks, worth well over a million dollars, were freed from farms in Iowa, South Dakota, and Wisconsin before Young and Samuels were pulled over in Wisconsin with a list of mink farm addresses in their car. The following year, a grand jury indicted them in absentia on six charges of extortion and terrorism, but unlike Samuels, who was eventually nabbed in Belgium, Young managed to remain on the lam for seven years. He was eventually arrested for, of all things, shop-lifting CDs at Starbucks, and ended up serving two years in prison for the Wisconsin mink raid. He was released in 2007 and almost immediately started giving provocative ALF speeches at universities and tweeting under the description “Vegan. Straight Edge. War Machine.” When I finally got Young on the phone after numerous emails, it was clear he was used to being tailed.

“Where are you these days?” I asked.

“I’m kinda just traveling right now,” Young said. “I’m between fixed residences.”

I asked if it’s been hard for him to take the legal activism route—university speeches, book publishing, viral videos— after getting to actually free foxes and see them roam free.

“Yeah, since getting out of prison, I’ve been having sort of an activist’s identity crisis,” he said. Which led me to a tactical question. Why doesn’t the ALF stick to live liberations? When it does, celebrities like Brigitte Bardot and Bill Maher come to its defense. But people just call ALFers terrorists when they burn things down.

Young said one problem with liberations is that, thanks in part to the ALF, most animal testing labs at universities have a huge security presence now. But Young also thinks arson simply works. “It puts the debate into the forefront,” Young said. “The average person doesn’t know there are two sides to eating animals. All of a sudden, the other side of the debate is introduced.”

“But how is what you guys are doing different from a pro-life activist bombing a clinic?” I asked, expecting him to get defensive. He didn’t. In fact, everything Young said in our more than two hours of talking seemed calm and calculated. “It would be disingenuous for me to say that it’s not very similar,” he said. “That’s not to say I support the pro-life movement, but interestingly, I recently read that it wasn’t until bombings started that the abortion issue really became a mainstream debate.”

Of course, those initial abortion clinic bombings took place in a pre–September 11, pre-Internet world. If arsons, bombings, and vandalism seemed blunt yet effective in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, now—with a video campaign like Kony2012 getting nearly 100 million views on YouTube—these actions seem utterly counterproductive. Just as blogs, undercover videos, and social networking have pushed many consumers to expect more humane farming practices, those same consumers also seem to be expecting more humaneness (and cleverness) from their activists.

I was tempted to bring this up with Young, but I didn’t, wanting to refocus our conversation on Harris Ranch. It was an action, Young admitted, he was “very familiar with.” While he maintained he had never been to the ranch, he “was impressed with the action on multiple levels.”

“What impressed you?”

“The fact that the ALF chose to target the meat industry, particularly a place that is so ominous.”

“Why do you think they were able to pull it off?”

“I think these [ranchers] are dinosaurs. They install some alarms or security systems, but they don’t really know what to look for.”

“What should they be looking for?”

“Well, I’m sure security was looking for someone in a car. I don’t think they expected anyone on foot.” Here, Young paused before adding, “a number of things about the reports suggested they were on foot.”

Actually, nothing in the exhaustive law enforcement or media reports I had read suggested anyone was on foot. Did Young know more about the incident than he was letting on? I let some time pass before calling again. We talked for a full hour about how the FBI has tried to catch him slipping, sending attractive undercover agents to hit on him after his speeches and such. “They’re always pretty obvious,” Young said. But when I finally got around to the bombers-on-foot question, he seemed to have realized his earlier error. “I’ve just whizzed by on I-5,” he clarified. “I wouldn’t know how to answer that.” Later, I emailed him the same question along with others about the FBI’s surveillance. This was his response:

[T]he extent of my knowledge about Harris Ranch is passing it going 60 mph, but the combined factors of (1) it being very flat and headlights being visible from a great distance, and (2) the rep of the security team there running up on anyone who even stops their car there (I know you had a different experience) would make someone wonder if it was feasible to just pull off the freeway and pull off such a large-scale action in a car. It would seem to be much easier to pull off with an approach that was more nimble, so to speak.

That was the last time I corresponded with Young. And it appeared that that was as close as I would come to solving the Harris Ranch mystery. Like the FBI thus far, and like almost every other investigator of the ALF over the last three decades, I would walk away with as many questions as answers. Try as I might to get Young to slip up and reveal the names and hometowns of the plotters, my suspicion is that even he had no clue who was behind the action. Such is the lasting power of the ALF, a decentralized, improvisational, anarchic club that has become so good at being faceless that it is now practically inhuman. And it will remain so, to borrow the final words from the bombers’ communiqué, “until next time...”