Animal Liberation Activist Peter Young Discusses Legal Issues at UW Law School

Animal liberation activist Peter Young spoke at the University of Washington Law School on April 5th to discuss the legal issues surrounding activism.

Animal liberation activist Peter Young spoke at the University of Washington Law School on April 5th on the legal issues surrounding activism. The standing room only crowd of 85 heard the history of Young's activist career, his legal battle and prison experiences, as well as animal liberation activism and direct action. Young was recently released from a two-year federal prison sentence for an incident involving the freeing thousands of mink in Wisconsin on 1997. The event, entitled “Against the Law: Direct Action in Animal Liberation,” was sponsored by the Seattle Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) based out of the UW Law School.

“Against the Law” is part of an ongoing dialogue that SALDF and UW are having about government crackdown on animal and environmental activists. Jenn Kaplan, a member of SALDF who coordinated this event, says that this is an extremely timely issue. The SHAC trial, Operation Backfire and the Compassionate Consumers are raising awareness and bringing attention to their issues. More than ever, she asserts, it is important for activists to understand the legal issues associated with their actions. Attorneys must be attuned to these needs. They chose Peter Young because he is a former animal liberation prisoner. He is also very articulate and his trial raised important legal and moral issues.

Young, a Washington state native hailing from Mercer Island, discussed the issues that lead up to activism, the specific incident that led to his arrest, the prosecution, his subsequent incarceration and his new insights on the legal system and activism. His “Support Peter Young” website and myspace page gained Young notoriety and a dedicated following.

Young attended Mercer Island High School, and in his college days at University of Washington he was a young skate boarder interested in punk rock music. His mild interest and awareness of animal rights activism changed when a close friend told him about a chicken slaughterhouse in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District neighborhood. A visit shortly thereafter enraged Young.

“I couldn’t believe that something like that could happen in my own neighborhood,” he said. “I was constantly haunted by what I had seen in this place.”

He and his friends had a new-found mission, and became involved with an on-campus UW group, Students for Animal Liberation. They used the Freedom of Information Act and simple business directories to discover animal testing and slaughterhouses “happening right across the street.”

These kinds of things are happening only “two blocks away…it happens right across the fucking grass, right here, ” observed Young, referring to the UW animal testing facilities. “You could walk by it 1000 times and never know it’s there.”

Young encouraged people to find out what’s happening in their own neighborhood, just as they did. These discoveries affected what actions Young was willing to take.

“At that point, we had no intention of breaking any laws,” he said. Soon, he found no room to negotiate with his conscience. He talked about the abilities of activists to abstract their issues, which leads to differing solutions.

“When something exists only on paper, your solutions are on paper. When the abstractions disappear, that’s when action starts to happen.”

In 1996, actions on behalf of animal liberation were increasingly common, and Peter said “volatility was in the air”. At one point, actions were taking place every night. The sabotage and release of fur farm animals were already occurring, so Young and others decided to focus on freeing mink in the Midwest. In the mid nineties freeing mink was a huge story in the news. That climate further solidified their decision. The also focused on the Midwest because they deemed that if and probably when they were caught, the prison system would be more adaptable to them. They were wrong about that.

They were correct in their assumption that they would indeed spend some prison time for their activism because Young and his friend Justin Samuel were caught on October 26th, 1997 outside a mink farm in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The police suspected they were watching a mink farm. The authorities found items that led to a six-count federal indictment against Young and Samuel. According to the website, the two were charged with violating the then named Animal Enterprise Protection Act with the alleged intent to coerce mink farms out of business by inflicting economic loss and damage. "The indictment reflects the determination of the law enforcement community and my office to address criminal activity designed to curtail or shutdown a lawful industry," said US Attorney Peggy Lautenschlager in Wisconsin's first case of "animal enterprise terrorism."

Samuel and Young went underground. Samuel was picked up in Belgium in 1999 and extradited to the United States on criminal charges. Samuel implicated Young in the crime as part of a plea deal in which he served two years in prison. Young was on more dangerous ground and faced the serious charges of violating the “animal enterprise terrorism” law. Young did not expect to be a victim of the unfortunate tried and true interrogation method of coercing people to inform on one-another in the hopes of a reduced sentence.

The hysterical “terror” climate of the early 2000’s fired-up the case against Young. He described the legal system as excessively ramping up their cases against animal activist because anti-activist attitudes prevail. It is now to the point that laws are specifically drafted for activists in politically motivated acts. Their intention, Young insists, is to prosecute the movement and its friends. Young said he and other activists are held accountable for every illegal act committed by these organizations in the past. These are very politically charged cases.

There are examples of the legal system specifically drafting laws aimed at prosecuting activists of this type. According to Kaplan, “The federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was recently amended to create extremely stringent penalties for those who cause economic losses to companies involved in the industrialized exploitation, even though acts of vandalism and violence are already illegal under state laws.” She notes that its vague language does not indicate what First Amendment rights this infringes on.

However this is not stopping anything. The state of Pennsylvania passed 18 Pa.C.S. § 3311, a bill criminalizing “ecoterrorism” in 2006. Illinois introduced a similar legislation, but it did not pass. In fact that would have made it a crime to take a photograph of an animal enterprise without the owner’s consent. Some other extreme laws include the “hunter harassment” (which is in every state). This law makes it illegal to interview with animal bloodsports. Then there are the “food disparagement” laws, like the one brought against Oprah Winfrey by Howard Lyman over comments she made about beef on her popular talk show.

Young’s case was primarily about damage control. Since his co-defendant turned state’s evidence, there was little doubt about his involvement. Kaplan says that “Peter needed an attorney with expertise in criminal defense to minimize his sentence and security.” In a case like the SHAC trial, the question is whether the defendant’s conduct was even legal in the first place.

There is an obvious need for conscientious allies in this movement. SALDF, who are a group of law students not yet licensed, role in the legal system is to create opportunities for law students to assist organizations like the Northwest Animal Rights Network in animal rights litigation under the auspices of licensed attorneys, assist grassroots activists. The main role of SALDF is to educate other students, local attorneys, and community members about the nexus between the law and the humane treatment of animals.

Kaplan believes that the continual interplay between the grassroots and legal activism is critical. There is also an important strategic element at play. Activist lawyers and organizations operate with modest budgets and need to prioritize their cases. They need to focus on the cases that will set a legal precedent for a “broader impact.” Kaplan says that “a case that could set a precedent regarding free speech, such as challenging an injunction that encroaches upon free speech, is a higher priority than a case whose holding is limited to its facts.” Young is a beaming example of a case they would focus in on.

Legal assistance does exist for activists in legal predicaments. Some attorneys provide services at lower rates and others charge full-price so that they can offer free services to others. Others may provide limited free consultation that provides them with the tools that they need to proceed. Litigation is expensive, and attorneys incur many expenses. Activists should always expect to reimburse their attorneys for these costs.

There are organizations, such as the Civil Liberties Defense Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Lawyers Guild, that provide legal representation as their resources permit, when cases are in line with their missions.

The realities of the consequences of actually breaking the law is very different than any preconceived notions or well researched facts one may have about the legal system, Young says. He believes that building strong relationships with lawyers is important as a client or potential future client. By connecting with legal allies, the prosecution and sentencing effects could be better. Young mentions a situation where the prosecution uses your past characterizations (like a minor fight outside a club) to determine where you are placed in the prison system. That minor fight will put you in with serious criminals. “Educate yourself (about the prison system)”, he insists. According to Young, lawyers provide a sense of guaranteed representation for activists, remarking that “lawyers are the EMT of the movement”.

During his speech, Young also addressed the animal rights movement on the level of tactics. While many may be supporting those caught during direct actions, many more are scared of speaking out for fear of being targeted themselves. He was especially frustrated by the lack of above-ground groups who to step forward and speak on behalf of animal rights when an illegal direct action takes place. Doing prisoner support around one or a group of people creates a compelling story, and can bring people in to an issue.

“When something happens, contact the media,” Young encouraged. “Maximize the effects of these kinds of actions. It’s this kind of coordination of above-ground and below-ground activists that needs to take place.”

For Peter Young, the chicken slaughterhouse in Chinatown will always be a haunting reminder of not only the travesties of the terror inflicted upon animals, but of the subsequent injustices involved when activists are compelled to stand up for their beliefs and then forced to defend themselves in the court of law. Through this all, Young says that no matter what happens, whether it’s a friend turning against you, the realities of the legal and prison system and the changes in the activism culture, it is always important to “leave behind a few victories.”


Paul can be contacted at torrespaul at (nospam!) Chris Iberle also contributed to this story ( The pictures are from the SALDF,

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