May 3rd, 2013 by Gary Smith
On April 20, a group of activists from Fermare Green Hill campaign entered a pharmacology lab at the University of Milano, Italy. Very quickly, news spread on social media. If you were like me, you spent the day reading updates on their Facebook page, waiting to see what would happen to the activists, would they be able to free any of the animals, what would their fates be? While five activists were inside the lab, a large protest took place outside.
They occupied the fourth floor and eventually left the lab with over 300 hundred animals. The entire action took place over nine hours. While inside, they were able to look at documents from the vivisectors and were able to show the world the inside of a vivisection lab.
I am excited and honored to be able to share with you an interview I conducted with a representative from the group.
Why did you decide to target a vivisection lab? Did you intend to leave the lab with animals?
We have been campaigning against vivisection for years. We have been fighting against Green Hill beagle breeders, and thanks to our campaign have seen a growth of interest on the issue of vivisection, not only among animal rights people, but among common people, the media, politicians and society as a whole. The abuse of animals in labs has become a serious issue. But still we thought there was a need to do something strong and show what a lab is like, what happens to animals, and try to smash the secrecy surrounding these experiments.
One of our main issues now is to have a public register of all experiments going on in the country, which seems like a really democratic request, but is seen by researchers as a real problem. Secrecy is something vivisectors are fighting hard to maintain. Smashing this secrecy was actually the main reason for the action. Leaving with the animals at the end of the day was of course an option and our request, but we actually never thought it could really end up like this.
Why did you choose to go into the lab in the light of day, exposing yourselves, rather than a more clandestine action? Were you concerned about the legal ramifications?
The main goal of the action was a public stunt to get attention and to open up a debate. To save the animals and get out is a completely different kind of action. We have nothing against these kinds of direct actions, of course, but our group is involved in public protests and this was what we would call a civil disobedience action, where we decided to barricade ourselves in the lab, with the animals, showing our faces and openly talking with the media.
Of course we were aware of legal problems coming from this action, like with all civil disobedience, but we are ready to face anything if this can really be a spark for some change in vivisection labs and the relationships that humans have with animals in general.
What did you find in the lab? Can you describe the emotions you felt being inside of a lab where animals are being brutalized?
There was a room with 18 rabbits, some of them in their cages since 2008 or 2009. They were really scared, some of them had lots of rotten feces in their cages. The one we rescued was full of fleas and mites, which contrasts a lot with the idea of a sterile lab environment.
There were many rooms full of racks with mice cages. The animals in there were trying to escape, some of them were jumping the entire time, banging their heads on the metal ceiling of the cage. Imprisonment made them crazy.
What was more interesting is we found documents of all experiments over the last years. Reading and taking pictures of them we found out what was going on in this lab and the reasons for the death of all these animals. Contrary to what the researchers say, many of the experiments carried out were not to cure serious illnesses and to save people. Many experiments were conducted on nicotine, THC or obesity, for example.
To be there has been a difficult trauma to deal with. The idea to leave these animals there was really difficult to face, and everything was set up to save all of them or at least most of them. This emotion was really strong also among the crowd supporting the action outside of the building, where about 500 people had spent the entire day.
Can you give us an update on where the animals that you saved from the Milano Lab are at this point? Do you expect the lab to turn over the remainder of animals that they agreed to?
The rescued rabbit is now living at the home of a friend of ours. After five years in his tiny cage, he now has a whole home and a caring person with him, and he has a name, he is no longer a number.
Most of the 300 mice already found homes through an organization called VitaDaCani, where some of us also volunteer. We personally took care of them and met most of the people these lovely animals will live with. It was fantastic to see them change their life from a small barren cage to much bigger environments full of stuff to do and proper savory food instead of those pellets they get in labs. Mice are incredible animals and we advise anybody to try and get to know them.
VitaDaCani is in touch with the University, and in the following days all the remaining animals should be released, as the reasearchers think they are now contaminated and useless. To them they are only products, things, but to us they are individuals, lives to be saved.
Did the action garner media attention in Italy as well as throughout Europe? If so, what was the tenor of the coverage? Did the coverage surprise you at all?
There was big coverage in Italian media, as expected. Actually they are still talking about it after ten days. At the beginning there were our words on the media, the images of the animals in labs and of our actions. Then the scientific community united and got a lot of coverage as well with their mantra “animal research saves lives and there is no alternative.” We responded again and asked for an open debate at the University, something that will probably take place in a few weeks, involving the ethical and scientific aspects of animal research.
Overall there have been many bad articles on the issue, but it’s still good when you see vivisectors so desperate to tell their blatant lies everywhere, and some of these lies are easily recognizable as such. They said to all media the mice would all die within 24 hours out of the lab environment, while only three died in the last ten days. So we are now collecting pictures with them to tell the real story of their new lives.
What suprised us was the action was covered also outside of Italy, even outside of Europe. We have been attacked by the global research community and received a lot of hate mail, text messages, phone calls and a full front attack on our facebook page with hundreds of them commenting and insulting us. This reaction makes us think we are really hitting some nerves.
In the US, we have designer laws like AETA as well as new laws called ag-gag that criminalize behaviors of animal rights activists and liberationists. Do you have similar laws in Italy? How does the public perceive animal rights activists?
We do not have specific laws against animal rights activity yet, but Italy has strong laws against terrorism, created in the ‘70s when class war was really strong and there were many armed guerrilla groups. They actually have difficulties applying these laws to other kinds of groups, like ours, so we feel a bit safe at the moment. A couple of years ago a politician proposed a law targeting animal rights actions at fur farms with a terrorism enhancement, but this politician was arrested for corruption, so that was the end of the first specific law against AR activities.
The public received our action quite well. Even the illegal liberation of 70 beagles at Green Hill has been largely applauded and perceived as the right thing to do. I think it really made a difference that the action was done as an open act of disobedience, with no masked activists and no real scuffles with the police. People perceived it as a “Robin Hood” kind of thing. So I guess it’s important to analyze how the movement is sometimes comunicating with the public and society, and how it is portraying itself. That liberation shows that even direct action can have large support and we are sure some underground actions can have big support if commuication is done in the right way.
It appears like you have a large animal rights community in Italy. What are you guys doing right to bring so many people out to actions? Any advice you can share?
In Italy there has always been a really huge animal welfare movement and a big portion of Italians are so-called animal lovers. There has always been a separately active grassroots community with their campaigns, and so on. What the Green Hill campaign did was to unite these two fronts and let the animal lovers become activists and the welfarists become more “militant.” We worked on an issue everyone could have something to do for, and created a front that was a real mix of people. Sometimes this was not easy at all to handle, since we had incredibly huge demos with thousands of people at their first demo ever, trying to do whatever they wanted and with no idea of our politics, sometimes attacking us for our decisions (not accepting right-wing people at our demos for example). But beside these side effects, we are sure the strength of this campaign came from this powerful mix and a well studied use of communication and the media.
How did this action compare with the Green Hill liberation? Have all of the beagles found adoptive homes?
All the beagles rescued in July have found homes in about three months. It was a huge job and many organizations worked on it. We actually worked on rehoming about 550 dogs ourselves.
Our latest action on April 20th is just a follow-up to the Green Hill campaign and liberation of all beagles. We want to show that this breeder was just the tip of the iceberg, as we say, and there are 600 labs using animals in this country. We want to show that people are still fighting hard to stop vivisection, whatever it may take.
Do you have a message or advice for activists that you’d like to share?
We remember the first time we went to check Green Hill a few years ago. It was scary. Such a big place, with five sheds full of barking dogs, hundreds of them going to labs every month. It was heartbreaking and felt like an impossible task to close this place or even save one dog from there. We had this dream anyway, and we worked hard on it. And in the end we got what we wanted, and much more we can say.
This is our message: always follow your dreams and always fight for them to become true. This can make such a difference to animals.