It’s a dark night in mid-August, and the clock is nearing 3am. A small group of people huddles together in a spot of overgrown vegetation, just outside an industrial farming facility where hundreds, if not thousands, of pigs are held captive. These pigs live out miserable and short lives at the end of which awaits a sorry fate consisting of becoming food on the plates of those who value their arbitrary taste preferences over the lives and suffering of sentient beings.
It is the first direct action of this type for several members of the group, and nerves are running high. They’ve seen cars come and go near the facility. And was that voices in the distance? Finally, after making sure everything seems calm and quiet, the moment has come, and it is time to enter in order to save some of the individuals inside. The group leaves the safety of the forest line and hurries across the open yard towards the entrance to the facility. As they open the unlocked door, they realize that someone is already inside. Panicked, the activists dash back to safety, and curse the turn of events. No animals will be saved tonight. Or will they? Where do we go from here?
This is a relatively accurate re-imagining of an open rescue performed by the Swedish direct action group Tomma Burar (Empty Cages), one of three such rescues performed during their high profile August campaign in which they hit three sites, liberating selected animals from the cruel conditions prevailing in industrial animal farms. They had been planning the campaign for a long time, and thought out what they believed would be the best tactics and best strategy for their specific conditions.
Rather than conforming to the stereotypical demographic of naive teenagers often spouted by media, commercial interests or politicians, these were people of various ages and from various backgrounds, some of them parents, some veteran activists while some participated in this type of action for the very first time. As such, certain options were off the table. A full blown rescue, while hitting the factory farm hard financially, would at the same time pose several problems. Chief amongst them, was that these activists had families, and couldn’t afford to leave them behind, spending time in prison.
They had children and loved ones to care for, and had to strike a balance between benefits for the animal liberation movement and personal consequences. Usually this is where activists often would drop out, and where everyday lives lure those in theory opposing many aspects of the status quo to lull into a sort of slumber, pacified by the hardships and realities of our society. And it is indeed hard to blame people for not doing more, as they try to stay afloat amidst financial, social and political hardship. But these activist wouldn’t have any of that, and thus the idea of open rescue.
Back in the safety of the vegetation, the group is shaken and uncertain of what to do. Months of planning, and now this setback at the first step of their campaign. But not everything is lost. In their reconnaissance operations, they have pinpointed a backup location. A plan B. But the safety of the night will soon break into the exposing light of dawn, and the later in the night it gets, the bigger the risk that personnel will be present at the site.
Besides, the secondary location is not as well scouted as the primary one. Is it worth the risk? The activists consult with their off-site member that is on stand-by back at home. Together they iron out how to get to the second location, and the group makes a consensus decision to carry on. There’s no time to be afraid or get caught up second guessing oneself, it is time to act.
Open rescue is a type of rescue in which the activists are open with both their identities and their actions. It means that they will certainly have to answer for what they do to those who uphold laws, but it also means a great chance at publicity, and a platform to discuss animal rights and animal liberation. For this purpose, the group chooses to perform the rescues as partially symbolic actions, for which the legal ramifications will not include prison. Throughout the course of August, they liberate two pigs, eight hens and one salmon.
The animals are relocated to loving homes (well, the salmon is in the open waters, which is probably as homely as it gets) where they can live in natural and non-oppressive environments. The activists contact authorities and media and inform them about the actions they have performed. They also leave a jar of cookies and a signed letter at the sites where they liberate animals, explaining their actions. They take pictures, record sound, and record video, before, during and after the rescues, and have turned it all into documentaries and informational material on their website where people can hear their thoughts, see their actions and judge the results for themselves.
As they performed further rescues, the media attention picked up, and the activists got recognition on national level. They managed to get statements published in a multitude of papers, and garnered the support of thousands of people, dozens of whom even contacted the group and were eager to join into similar operations.
Some radical voices, on the other hand, criticized the group’s “tame” approach and friendly style of communication. But the effort the group put into this image is probably the key element of the broad popularity of their actions. The group contacted experts for consultation regarding how to best transport and feed the animals, wore protective clothing during all rescues, and generally made sure that derailing the debate with dishonest pseudo-concerns wasn’t viable, and that critics had to face on explain that the lives and well-being of these rescued individuals were not a priority compared to property rights.
This can be a valuable lesson to activists of all stripes. Just because we’re radical, we don’t have to treat those we oppose as bad as possible or profile ourselves with the most vulgar and polarizing rhetoric possible. Sometimes, we need to break things or violently defend ourselves. But other times, a friendly approach can be the most disarming thing in the world.
It feels like the clock is racing as the activists approach the second site. It will soon get bright, and as the group surveys the perimeter, they confirm that this facility is locked, and they will need to break open the front door. They proceed with their plan, get into the facility, select two pigs, and carry them to the car which they have prepared for the journey to safety.
As the activists leave the facility, it is already dawning, and they hurry into the car and drive off. The tension built up throughout the night’s events finally subsides, and some of the members of the group break into tears. The surreal circumstances of the rescue clash with everyday reality, driving a car down a countryside road seeing the two animals sleeping tightly in the back.
Even though the activists of Tomma Burar do not espouse any specific political ideas or principles other than their veganism and animal liberation sentiments, it is easy to extrapolate their actions and their thoughts to a broader context. By taking action into their own hands, and disregarding arbitrary laws, they question the very foundation of present day society. A foundation which consists of multiple layers of domination and oppression, which we can reject and act out against in a way that suits our own situation.
By being open with their identities, these activists became very relatable, with all their thoughts, fears, strengths and weaknesses, and it is easy to realize that they are not very different from anyone else. We can all let ourselves be inspired and take this with us as we envision the actions we can take ourselves, in our lives, to challenge the oppressive institutions that we are stuck with for now. At some point, all those small ripples will become a storm again, and through our actions we’re all potential links in the chain that will lead up to it.
As the early morning light paints the surrounding rural landscape in different shades of green, the activists reach the location of the new home for the two liberated pigs. One of the group’s members reflects on the night’s events:
-Watching them stroll around here, with grass under their feet, curious and playful, one single thought strikes me. How can anyone think we’ve done the wrong thing? It is absurd. We haven’t stolen anything. We have liberated two individuals.
The two young pigs grunt, as to confirm the statement, while they busily forage the surrounding grass for food and keenly explore their new surroundings. They sure enjoy themselves, but it is hard to tell if they know just how lucky they are. Back at the factory, vast amounts of their former companions will never experience anything other than crowded concrete floored confinements, with no light but instead a premature death down the tunnel.
As the activist group says it themselves, in one of their videos: Rescued animals are ambassadors for those left behind.
English website of the Swedish direct action group Tomma Burar
Vegan podcasts by members of the direct action group Tomma Burar, outlining their August campaign (in Swedish only).