The Animal People By Joaquin Phoenix

The Animal People By Joaquin Phoenix
The Animal People By Joaquin Phoenix

Over the past few months, I’ve watched multiple documentaries showing the exploitation of animals in factory farms and testing labs. I confess that I’ve often looked away from the screen during the worst of it. I have, however, seen enough to make me cry.

The undercover footage in Joaquin Phoenix’ The Animal People is particularly disturbing because it involved experiments on beagles. Among all of man’s best friends, beagles are the most likely to end up in research labs, according to the American Anti-Vivisection Society. 

Tragically, the two traits that make beagles such good pets — a loving disposition and small stature — also make them desirable as experimental subjects.

Anger, sadness and disgust — I felt all of these while watching the beagle experiments. I think any sane person would feel the same.

But for some, those feelings never fade. They can’t just move on with their lives.

Joaquin’s documentary shines a light on six members of the animal-rights movement SHAC (for Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty). They were a group of twenty-somethings who saw the beagle videos and dared to act.

Their target was Huntingdon Life Sciences, a multinational corporation and the world’s largest animal testing lab. It was a true David-and-Goliath effort, as SHAC member Lauren Gozzola explains:

“Corporations get to do what they want — that’s a rule in our society. We challenged the right of this corporation to exist.”

The ways they went about it, or so they thought, were all protected as freedom of speech:

  • Attending rowdy-but legal protests.

  • Sharing embarrassing but publicly available info about Huntingdon on their website.

  • Vocally supporting, but not participating in, the SHAC movement’s militant actions.

In the words of Lauren’s fellow activist Josh Harper:

We didn’t break anything; we didn’t burn anything; we didn’t beat anyone; we didn’t even so much as trespass. Our crime is doing exactly what I’m doing right now — speaking.”

But their efforts were effective enough to draw the US government’s wrath. Congress, FBI agents, and the criminal justice system all came together to end the “Animal People” problem.

The SHAC Six made plenty of mistakes along the way. But they did so in the name of finding the most productive way to channel their empathy within the boundaries of the law.

There’s something heroic about that, and I believe the future will judge them far more favorably than the justice system did.

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