BOOK REVIEW: Free the Animals : The Story of the Animal Liberation Front

Free the Animals : The Story of the Animal Liberation Front

Free the Animalsis a highly unique book in the animal rights canon, and it is one of my favorites. I’ve read it any number of times, but I have never failed to find it gripping.This is the true story of “Valerie,” the woman who founded the original American Animal Liberation Front, and the architect behind the group’s most daring liberations and exposes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was the era when the ALF was known for rescuing animals, rather than starting fires and building homemade bombs—a turn that has caused most in the general public and the animal advocacy movement to disavow any support of the clandestine movement. We learn that the British version of the ALF took this destructive turn quite a while before the Americans did.

The main focus of the book, as it should be, is the animals themselves, and their often shocking experiences within some of the nation’s most outwardly prestigious labs. We learn the story of Vanguard, for instance, a small shy, poodle mix who was so mangled by dog fights in his overcrowded kennel that it looked as if he would die before he was even sent to the decompression chamber in US Navy diving experiments. After Vanguard was removed by the ALF, animal activists managed to trace back the dog’s labyrinth of a story:

[Class B dealer] Environmental Distributors had bought him from a small-town sheriff who ran a dog pound. The sheriff had picked him up from a family that owned eight other dogs. PETA sent somebody to see Vanguard’s original owners and tell them what had become of their dog. The woman who came to the door was unconcerned. “We just had too many,” she said.

Possibly the most shocking story was that of the burglary of videotapes made by experimenters at Thomas Gennerelli’s head injury lab at Penn State. No one really knew much about the experiments in this basement lab, and Generelli liked it that way. In a 1983 interview with the Toronto Globe, the researcher had said,

“I’m not willing to go on record to discuss the studies…it has the potential to stir up all sorts of unnecessary fuss….We’re trying to keep ourselves out of the newspapers.”

The box of videotapes quickly revealed to the world the reason for the secrecy. The experiments were frequently performed by students, and they acted the way that college kids tend to do without supervision—only in this case they were in control of extreme suffering.

In the next scene, Valerie could make out only the legs of a restrained baboon as a vivisector bent over him. The man was saying, “He was banged once at 680 g force and quickly recovered. Cheerleading over in the corner, we have B-10,” the camera panned to a disabled monkey strapped into a chair in the corner, brain damaged and drooling. The experimenters laughed.

Then, referring to the massive stitched wound extending the entire length of the monkey’s cranium, “There, look at that part on his head [laughter]. Hmm, that’s some part you’ve got there. He has the, uh, the punk look.” “The punk look, is that what you said? [laughter]”

And on and on; hours upon hours of videotape of students behaving in a cruel, scientifically unsound, and irresponsible way—even smoking cigarettes while performing surgery upon animals. Predictably, the talking heads rushed to the defense of the experimenters when the videos were made public, offering up some unintentional humor, such as when the Dean of Penn’s veterinary school announced:

It is absolutely false that we are inhumane or cruel in our research. We treat these animals better than most people treat their pets.

The chief investigator at Gennarelli’s lab, took things a step even further, proclaiming:

We treat the baboons the way we treat human beings.

(Jesus, I better stay away from Penn State.) The director of the always pro-vivisection National Institutes of Health also got into the act:

That laboratory is among the best in the world.

Wow. Nevertheless, the public outcry was such that federal funding for the lab was suspended at the order of a then-government official. However, as with most victories of the fight for animal welfare, it was a short-lived one.

Years later, when Secretary [of Health and Human Services] Margaret Heckler had been replaced by a new administrator, Dr. Louis Sullivan, a staunch supporter of all animal experiments, NIH quietly returned funding to Generelli to revive his laboratory.

Animals gives us a look into a variety of laboratories that most people would ever see, all involving a wide variety of species. A break-in at SEMA, for instance, offers a view into experimentation upon mankind’s closest living relatives:

Exactly as Miki as related, [the cages] were the size of stand-up refrigerators, and inside each one—barely visible trough the foggy, scratched plastic—was a full-grown chimpanzee, able only to stand and sit. That, and nothing more.

Almost as interesting as the animals’ stories is the look inside the cloistered world of animal researchers. There is quite a bit of arrogance on display in these early years, before activist pressure caused researchers to become much more tight-lipped about their careers. For example, the text states that Peter Hand, one experimenter working at Penn State, displayed a vanity license plate reading “PAIN.”

Vivisectors of a feather stick together, it seems. Newkirk writes of one experimenter:

Morrison had not only been active locally, stopping a humane education course at his own university, he had also kept a list of “trouble spots”—places and people being criticized for poor animal care or cruel research. Morrison had provided support to anyone who found himself or herself “persecuted” for animal abuse.

[W]hat Morrison had been doing to cats for the past twenty-five years: studying how they react to extreme temperatures before electrically burning out sections of their brains, exposing sleep-deprived cats to loud noises, and crushing cats’ spinal columns with jeweler’s forceps.

When Morrison left the university, he was given a new job with the National Institutes of Health:

Morrison was given a newly created position at NIH headquarters in Bethesda. He was to be director of laboratory animal care, a permanent, full-time spokesperson for an industry under constant attack.

First published in 1992, Free the Animals contains some information that is no longer applicable. For instance, Newkirk writes:

In 1992, The Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Humane Society of the US won their lawsuit against the USDA to compel the inclusion of rats and mice under the Animal Welfare Act.

Well, we all know how that turned out.

The day after the [Washington] Post story broke, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger suspended all military shooting of animals [in wound labs].

That, too.

The book concludes with a long passage from a leaked interagency memo which outlined US government plans to fight the animal rights movement, strategies that are still used to this day.

Animals does have a few weak spots. Because the subject is a wanted criminal, she didn’t actually relate her personal life and history to the author. Thus, the “everyday life” information that surrounds the laboratory raids is fictional. I found myself rather bored with Valerie’s relationship with her one-dimensional boyfriend. The man seemed perfectly happy and supportive of Valerie’s choice to constantly jet back and forth across the country, committing federal crimes that would not only jeopardize her freedom but his own as well. That doesn’t happen. In another section, Valerie is laid up in the hospital, and her nurse, with very little prompting, announces she had protested animal experiments in nursing school, and Valerie convinces her to become a vegetarian. We later find the woman going on ALF raids with Valerie. Once again, that just doesn’t happen. Finally, there is a typo either in the text or in a photo caption. A former laboratory dog named “Old Man” is described as being a boxer mix, but the photo is of a German Shepherd.

Today, a new breed of activists are rewriting the story of clandestine advocacy. Today, the bearers of this torch are those who conduct open rescues and film undercover video at factory farms and other places of abuse. They seem to adhere most closely to the ideals of the original ALF, rather than the builders of bombs.

(review originally appeared at

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