High Tech Animal Activism
Like almost every other group trying to get ahead in modern times, animal rights activists have discovered that technology breeds success.That's why Steve Hindi, the 42-year-old Plano director of the non-profit Chicago Animal Rights Coalition (CHARC), spent $8,000 apiece on an undisclosed number of motorized paragliders to fly 26 mph over hunting ranges, distracting hunters and shooing away birds and deer.That's also why his group of 500 supporters, which includes a core group of 30 loyal activists, has ponied up thousands more on long-range and undercover video cameras to document animal abuse. The group hands over the tapes to news stations and state's attorneys to document abuses of the Illinois Humane Care for Animals Act."Animal activists can get stuck in a rut carrying signs and writing letters," said Hindi, a former hunter who is president of an industrial fasteners business. "These protesters try and try to convince people that their point of view is correct. I prefer to hand someone a video and let them see animal abuse for themselves."In this day and age, you have so many more options, why limit yourself?," he said of his tapes, which have been aired on local Chicago television stations, "Hard Copy," "Current Affair," and outlets in Britain and Germany.By gaining the public's attention, Hindi's CHARC claims responsibility for stamping out pigeon shoots, stopping painful horse tripping activities, and helping to rescue burros that were going to be killed by park officials in Death Valley.The more traditional animal rights activists who pass out pro-vegetarian fliers and anti-zoo brochures aren't hurt by Hindi's words.In fact, nearly 30 of Chicago's Animal Rights Mobilization (ARM) members who protested outside the John G. Shedd Aquarium in May for Marine Mammal Freedom Weekend said they were in full support of Hindi's unconventional activities. They're thinking of ways to get more active too."There's a lot to be said for civil disobedience," said Amanda Solon, 29, of Chicago, who peacefully held a homemade sign against animal abuse outside the Shedd. "I support anything that brings awareness to the people, whether it be chaining yourself to a rodeo gate or a zoo or whatever. We're always trying to think of new, non-violent tactics as well."Another ARM member, Diane Brady, 45, of Elmhurst, also said she admires the risk-takers. She wishes she could fly in one of Hindi's air machines and yell down to hunters from above the treetops to stop killing God's creatures. "But I'm chicken," she said. "And I don't have enough money to get out of jail."Though the high-tech route draws much attention and often yields more immediate results, the fear of being jailed can be a deterrent to many who'd otherwise like to join the ranks.Hindi has been arrested about 15 times on charges of hunter interference and harassing wildlife. Many of the charges have ultimately been dropped_but the arrests are emotionally and financially draining.In February 1996, Hindi and two other animal-rights activists were arrested in Minnetonka for videotaping the trapping and shooting of deer. The activists employed night-vision electronic equipment, but authorities claimed that they had interfered with the city's deer management program.Nine months later, Hindi was arrested for using sirens and bull horns while flying over the Woodstock Hunt Club in McHenry County. A prosecutor entered a permanent injunction against using aircraft and noise devices that distract animals.Most recently, Hindi and a few of his flying cohorts have been involved in a legal battle with the Lake County State's Attorney's Office over their alleged misconduct during the Wauconda rodeo last summer.Some CHARC members went undercover and videotaped people twisting horses' tails over metal rungs, slapping horses' faces and throwing dirt in horses' eyes "to piss them off before the rodeo," Hindi said. The sheriff's deputies came to arrest Hindi, Mike Durschmid, another well-known activist (see sidebar), and others for using megaphones to disrupt the rodeo and for leaping over the gates and lying prostrate on the ground of the pen to prevent the event from taking place.While the militant CHARC members were having clashes with the law inside the rodeo, ARM activists worked outside the gates, quietly holding signs and passing out brochures.Though their tactics may differ, animal rights activists do seem to agree on the basic message, which parallels the Golden Rule: Do unto animals as humans would want done unto themselves."Of course this doesn't mean that animals should be allowed to rent apartments or get into movie theaters," said Kay Sievers, 54, the North Side executive director of ARM. "But they should have certain basic rights. They shouldn't have to feel pain. They shouldn't have to die or be held in captivity."And as Sievers writes in her May/June newsletter, "Animals feel emotions, think, and often possess extraordinary physical capabilities. They communicate. They are their own, unique, individual selves. They share these things with the human species and, based on these qualities, should be allowed to live their lives without being enslaved, used, abused and then discarded like garbage."While the in-your-face CHARC members and the brochure-friendly ARM activists support each other's methods, both groups criticize the so-called hypocritical efforts of animal welfare groups, such as the Humane Society.Animal rights movements, Sievers explained, are vastly different than animal welfare groups, "which promote old, accepted, non-threatening, and irrational behavior."Sure, animal welfare societies might provide temporary shelter for animals and educate children to some extent, but Humane Society officials eventually end up killing the stray dogs and cats that never find homes, Sievers said."What good is that?" she asked, adding that most of its employees are not vegetarians and many promote biomedical research.Animal rights groups seek to "radically change society," she said.While many of the 600-nationwide ARM members haven't taken to the skies like the airborne CHARC members, they too, have begun to think unconventionally, adding dramatics, controversy and media attention to their bag of tricks.So far, ARM has placed two radical ads in Conscious Choice, drawing both harsh criticism and warm praise for their photo displays. One ad shows a kitten disappearing into a meat grinder and another shows a puppy sandwiched between two halves of a hot dog bun."Our policy is radical," Sievers said, "even though our practice is not. We didn't hurt animals to do those ads, but we've got to try everything we can to make people think."At other times, animal rights activists dress up as animals and perform street theater, acting out the horrors of vivisection or the exploitative nature of eating meat. In one act, demonstrators pretended they were rats in pain under experimentation.The animal groups have also figured out that calling the news camera trucks to cover their demonstrations adds a new dimension of immediacy and importance to their events.Some animal activists, both high-tech and traditional, however, are afraid that some of their protests and behaviors might backfire."I'm afraid of taking the direction of the anti-choice groups who have alienated so much of the public with their disgusting fetus ads," said an activist who preferred to remain anonymous. "I think we need a balance between getting in the public's face and keeping them on our side."ARM's protest outside the Shedd did, in fact, turn off some passers-by."Yeah, it bothers me that they're here," said Steve Kocian of Gurnee. "The protesters are well within their rights. But do they have to do it right in front of the aquarium? It puts a damper on it."But sometimes, for all types of activists, the combination of long hours of research, protests, high-tech fly-bys, and even jail-time, pays off.Christiana Royal, a 22-year-old University of Illinois student, was walking in front of the Shedd with two friends on the day of the ARM protest. She took a brochure and read it thoughtfully. "You know, I've gone here before and I never thought about it like a zoo," she said. "But now I'll think twice about coming back. I think these folks have a point."