When many people hear the phrase “animal liberation” they imagine covert operations in which those participating are clad in head-to-toe in black, their faces covered in order to conceal their identities. The shadowy nature of these encounters (real or imagined) has contributed to a somewhat negative impression of animal liberation among the general public. There is a fear of violence, a sense that these cloak-and-dagger style operations have no place in a “civilized” society. It is the activists, in other words, that tend to be envisioned as the ones causing harm in this version of events.
Patty Mark, the founder of Australia’s Animal Liberation Victoria, has much respect for these non-violent activists, however, she chose to approach animal liberation differently. Mark pioneered a form of activism we now know as “open rescue,” and, in so doing, has helped to change the conversations about activism and about how nonhuman animals are treated and valued in our contemporary world. In the “open rescue” model, there is no attempt to hide or avoid detection. Those participating in open rescues rely on video footage to not only show the deplorable conditions they find the animals in but also the importance of the immediate care and attention given to neglected and enslaved animals in great need.
The first time that Mark engaged in this form of activism was in the early 1990s. A woman who worked at an egg producing factory where thousands of hens were crammed in small battery cages had told her about the deplorable conditions in which these birds lived. Mark recalls that this this woman “talked about hens crammed 7 to 8 inside multiple tiers of small cages, row after row, located above what she described as an ‘enclosed manure pit.’” Through this conversation, Mark learned that “hens would somehow get out of their cages then fall down into this pit, where there was no food and water, and they would slowly starve to death.” While Mark’s informant attempted to offer some assistance to these bird by breaking eggs and throwing them down for them to eat, she reported that “some of the other workers would do target practice trying to shoot these feeble hens trapped down in this pit.”
This horrific story haunted Mark, and a friend of hers, a woman named Diana Simpson, offered to take a video camera in to the facility at night to obtain footage of these conditions. Mark will never forget the impact that this footage had on her, how:
Diana’s bravery (and filming skills) will never leave my mind. The footage she brought to me will also never leave my mind. There in front of me, clear and painfully sharp, were dead and dying hens sinking in their own feces; hens with their combs drooped over their eyes unable to hold their heads up waiting to die; piles of dead birds sinking into a liquid slush of feces where a water source from above had been leaking. They had obviously tried very hard to get a drink. It was beyond heartbreaking, it was beyond unjust.
Seeing this footage galvanized Mark who immediately began making plans to rescue the hens in this facility. She knew that turning the footage over to the authorities and imploring them to investigate on the grounds of cruelty and neglect would not help the hens as she had tried this too many times before. Instead, she “had an overwhelming gut reaction to go there myself, to hold them, help them, give them some water.” She began to organize a “rescue mission,” and part of this process involved talking to “a trusted media contact who offered to send a camera crew and reporter along.” Mark was excited by the potential of having this mission documented and, as she recalls, “it didn’t cross my mind for our action to be clandestine, only to somehow get ourselves in there safely so we could help as many hens as possible, to document conditions so people would become aware of what was happening and to openly identify ourselves while doing what needed to be done.” This first “open rescue” made the national news in Australia as a story titled “The Dungeons of Alpine Poultry.” This set the course for many more rescue operations of this nature in the subsequent decades.
Mark points to the “teamwork” aspect of open rescues, and how in this model a number of people come together to help animals who are in desperate need of a compassionate intervention. In addition to directly and immediately helping to improve the lives and wellbeing of the animals in these facilities, open rescue operations also help to “document the appalling conditions that billions of animals are forced to endure.” Further, the presence and visibility of rescuers in the footage helps to change the dialogue about animal liberation. As Mark notes, “by standing strongly right there with these animals we are openly acknowledging for all to see that what is happening to them is wrong and needs to stop.” In other words, in the open rescue model of animal liberation the idea of the activists as being the ones in the wrong is turned on its head. Instead, people are left asking questions about a system that permits such suffering to happen in the first place and which castigates those people reaching out to give immediate aid to sick and dying individuals who were left unattended.
Mark has been described as “fierce and fearless” in her efforts to make the world a better place for animals. She has been fined and arrested numerous times for her role in open rescues, but this does not deter her. She refuses to pay these fines on “ethical grounds,” noting that if she receives a parking ticket she pays it immediately, but that “there is something very strong inside me that balks at paying a fine for what is simply taking an ill, crippled or stressed individual for medical treatment and/or freedom.” She acknowledges that “it can be stressful being arrested and it’s definitely not something we want to happen, but it’s nothing compared to what the animals we are being arrested for are going through.” When talking about these arrests Mark points out that these experiences “only served to strengthen my resolve to keep working to free the animals because you really get a taste (albeit short) of what they are going through when you are locked up and can’t do what you want to do.”
Mark is acutely aware of the scale of suffering and is haunted by thoughts of all the animals the ALV have not been able to save, the ones “we have to leave behind.” While she cannot forget these animals, she does not allow herself to be overwhelmed by sadness or despair. It is almost as if the memory of those she could not help pushes her forward and drives her to work even harder for those who still have a chance. Mark works tirelessly to make a difference and is singularly focused on helping animals—every decision she makes is based on how her actions will best help support her drive to help animals in need.
Mark’s mission to help animals began in the early 1970s. Like many people, she had considered herself to “love animals” but did not stop to think about the fact that so many of them suffer and are killed for food production. This all changed in 1974 when she saw a goat’s head in a cauldron of soup during an 18 month bicycle tour of Europe and Asia on her way to Australia. This sight caused her to become vegetarian immediately (17 years later she went vegan), and also forced her to reflect on the horrific ways in which so many animals are treated and the fact that animals have their own wants, needs, desires, and feelings that so often go ignored in favour of human wants, needs, desires, and feelings. Prior to this, the notion of “animals possessing autonomy” had never crossed her mind—“this was something I don’t recall ever being discussed or considered,” she notes. This realization changed when her husband brought Animal Liberation by Peter Singer home from the library. Mark credits this book with informing her about what was happening to animals on a grand scale. She states, “I had to repeatedly put the book down as finding out the truth and its enormity was too upsetting.” But it was many years later after she came across the writings of Gary Francione that her mind was opened to what animals needed most—abolition of animal use and abolishing the property status of animals.
Shortly after reading Singer’s book Mark founded Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV) and set about finding like-minded people to join her efforts to change the world for animals. She posted a notice containing the words “Help the Hens” in big, bold letters in a local shop, and on the 7th of December 1978, the first ALV meeting took place in Mark’s house. Seventeen people were in attendance at that now-historic meeting, and the focus of that evening’s discussions was on finding ways to abolish battery cages. Mark knew that changes like this would not happen overnight—“I remember telling this meeting that we had to be patient, that it may take us two years” to achieve this goal. In Australia the fight to ban battery cages continues to the present day, but Mark and ALV now don’t focus only on caged hens but on animal agriculture in all its forms. ALV and Mark are at times marginalised for their strong abolitionist stance, but they are not deterred by seemingly slow progress and they continue to work steadily to ensure a strong foundation for a successful animal movement.
Right from the earliest days of the organization ALV members gave talks at schools and public events, organized protests and marches, circulated petitions, and distributed countless leaflets outlining the reality of life and death for farmed animals. Mark and the other members of ALV made a conscious decision to focus their efforts on farmed animals because there was so little attention paid to their plight. As Mark recalls, “there was no Internet or Facebook at this time, and images of animal abuse inside animal agriculture were rare.” Mark and her colleagues at ALV felt that they “struck gold” when they were able to obtain images showing the deplorable conditions farmed animals faced and were convinced that “once we printed these images, for instance a featherless hen in a battery cage, onto a leaflet or a huge placard this horror would be banned immediately.” While they were dismayed to discover that this was not the case, Mark and her fellow advocates continued to work tirelessly to educate and raise awareness about the realities of life (and death) for the animals who are raised for food. Through the addition of “open rescues” in 1993 they were able to begin making a difference for the individual animals, something they felt was tremendously important for activists to do.
For years Mark’s home was also the headquarters of the ALV, and it was a place bursting with upbeat energy. Volunteers and staff bustled about, while rescued animals enjoyed their newfound freedom and all of the comforts that came with their new lives in a safe, loving environment. For example, visitors recall how sheep curiously walked inside the house, keeping a hopeful eye on the snacks that had been set out for the staff and volunteers. Mark’s son Noah is now the President of Animal Liberation Victoria, and under his direction this organization continues to “be strong in its mission statement of supporting animal rights, abolition, and veganism.”
Mark is a trailblazer in the world of animal liberation and has, no doubt, inspired many people with her work. She is, however, quick to acknowledge the work of people like artist Sue Coe who she met in 1999 and who remains a huge inspiration to her. She also has high words of praise for Emily Moran Barwick of Bite Size Vegan, and Joanna Lucas of Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary, activists who use their time and talents to bring the message of veganism and animal liberation to so many. Mark is also deeply inspired by the bravery, advocacy, and life of Jill Phipps, a British activist who was killed while attempting to stop a truck carrying veal calves in 1995.