The Next Social Justice Movement: An Interview With the Animal Defenders Office’s Tara Ward

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Animal Defenders Office

The High Court of Australia ruled in February that footage revealing greyhound trainers illegally using live rabbits as baits was inadmissible in court, as it had been obtained unlawfully. However, subsequent resulting evidence could be permitted, so those trainers will now face criminal charges.

Chief investigator at Animals Australia Lyn White engaged the services of a documentary photographer to covertly gather the live baiting evidence, after receiving an anonymous tip off in late 2014 about it happening at a western Sydney property.

White decided to take matters into her own hands in capturing the footage, as she believed a search warrant wouldn’t be issued based solely on an anonymous lead. And on receiving the footage, the RSPCA NSW went on to execute a warrant at the property.

At the time, the illegal practice of live baiting was rumoured to have been occurring in the greyhound industry for decades. However, as the laws and policies pertaining to animal welfare are often lacking in this country, until illegal methods were employed, it simply remained a rumour.

Green-collar criminals

Over 2019, the NSW Liberal Nationals government and its counterpart in Canberra were both obsessed with “vegan vigilantes” and passing laws designed to silence their attempts to expose the cruel practices that go on within the animal agricultural industry.

Following nationwide animal rights actions on 8 April, PM Scott Morrison vowed he’d be cracking down on “green-collar criminals”. And by September, fresh ag-gag laws had been passed at the federal level, criminalising those who share information about agricultural businesses.

Meanwhile, back in this state, the Berejiklian government’s agricultural minister introduced the Right to Farm Bill, which sought to quadruple the fine applying to the controversial offence of aggravated trespass, as well as adding a three year prison term to the crime.

When it was pointed out by the broader activist community that these draconian amendments aimed at animal activists would penalise protesters of any creed, the bill was altered so that when it was finally passed, the new penalties only applied to “an offence that occurs on agricultural land”.

Defending the voiceless

Situated in the ACT, the Animal Defenders Office (ADO) is a national community legal centre that specialises in protecting animals and their defenders. ADO executive director Tara Ward co-founded the centre in 2014.

The senior solicitor asserts that over the last six years she’s found that as the laws don’t adequately protect animals, she’s spent most of her time defending people who break them in an attempt to keep animals safe and to uphold their rights.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Ms Ward about why the law provides little protection to animals, what she believes is behind the current push to legislate ever-increasing ag-gag laws and how there are many who believe the next big social justice movement will be animal liberation.

Tara Ward in front of a Court

Firstly, the motto of the Animal Defenders Office (ADO) is “using the law to protect animals”. However, since the ADO began operating in 2014, you’ve found that the laws are stacked against them.

Ms Ward, how are the laws, as you put it, “structurally designed not to protect” animals? And what are some examples of where laws are failing them?

As any animal lawyer will tell you, the basic problem for animals is that the law regards them as property. Everything begins and almost ends there.

Animals are not legal entities equivalent to legal persons, with legally protected rights. That is the upshot of them having the status of property. And that means that animals’ interests will always come second to those of humans.

So, in that sense, our laws are structurally designed not to protect animals. The law protects human property rights in possessing animals, far more than it protects the interests of animals.

And these are fundamental interests, like being free, not being tortured or abused, or even more fundamentally, not being killed when they don’t want to die.

That’s why we can have laws that essentially allow us to keep many animals in tiny barren cages for most, if not all, of their lives. We only need to think of farrowing crates for mother pigs, or battery cages for hens.

That’s also why the laws allow us to do things like breed chickens to lay eggs, and then blend up millions of male chicks that producers don’t want because they don’t produce eggs.

That’s why, in the process known as mulesing, they slice off lambs flesh without pain relief, as well as why wild animals, like lions and monkeys, can be kept in tiny cages and carted around the country to perform really ridiculous tricks in the circus.

There’s also the obvious example that anyone in the street would come to, which is exporting live animals on long sea journeys in hot, cramped conditions.

So, following on from this, what’s come to pass over the ADO’s six years in operation is that most of its caseload has involved defending activists taking direct action to protect animals.

What are some of the situations you’ve been involved with in defending animal welfare activists?

A big problem in the animal protection space is that even though our animal welfare laws are criminal laws, they’re enforced by private charities.

It’s rather difficult to think of any other situation where criminal laws would be enforced by charities.

And one of the many problems with that is charities don’t have surveillance powers. So, getting evidence of animal mistreatment – especially animals kept behind closed doors – is very hard.

All activities, and any potential cruelty, takes place on private property away from the public gaze.

So, given this fundamental flaw in our regulatory framework, some activists have, as a last resort, decided to get the evidence and the information themselves to bring it to light.

And this can lead them to break trespass laws or surveillance device laws, if they obtain video footage or photos of what takes place.

Now, in NSW, surveillance device laws are actually harsher than more recent laws in other jurisdictions, in that they don’t have a public interest exception.

So, in other words, prohibition against recording activities on private property that’s entered without consent applies even if the recording was in the public interest.

These days, many would say capturing evidence of animal cruelty is definitely in the public interest.

There are also instances of activists taking direct action that is lawful – such as standing on street corners showing footage of slaughterhouses to passers-by – who have then been arrested for public nuisance.

This is despite them showing industry standard practices and having every right to be where they were.

Another example is the emergency rescue situation, where it’s known that animals are suffering, yet authorities are refusing to take action.

There’s the question of could the defence of necessity be used to enter private property to rescue those animals, who are in pain and suffering. We now have a case in the NSW Supreme Court looking at that very issue.

The number of ag-gag laws designed to prevent animal activism in this country has dramatically increased over the last half decade.

In 2019, the Morrison government passed the Agriculture Protection Bill, whilst the Berejiklian government passed the Right to Farm laws.

How would you describe what’s been going on in regard to these laws? And why do you believe there’s been this focus over recent times?

There’s no doubt that awareness about the way industries treat animals is growing in our community, and people don’t like what they see.

The number of people choosing a cruelty-free lifestyle – where no animal products are used or consumed – is growing exponentially, to the point where animal industries are taking notice, and inevitably feeling challenged.

As a long-time vegan, I got used to being ignored, ridiculed or shunned in the past. But, recently, it’s been really interesting to see the big advertisements promoting vegan products everywhere.

That’s a definite sign that plant-based consumers are growing in number. And some industries want to cash in. However, others – like animal agriculture primary producers – are naturally feeling threatened.

Those industries are a vocal and powerful sector in our community, so they petition governments for laws to protect their industries.

That’s why we are getting what’s known as ag-gag laws, which are laws designed to silence the critics of animal industries.

Ag-gag laws started in the US. But, they’ve taken off in Australia with characteristics that are unique to this country.

Here the laws are focused on biosecurity and stopping people entering farms to obtain information and evidence, or urging others to do so. This is a different direction from the original US ag-gag laws.

ADO student volunteers

You’ve commented that animal rights defenders in taking nonviolent direct action that break laws are similar to members of civil disobedience movements in the past, who in the long run have been judged by history as being in the right.

How do you think history will determine animal activists going into the future? And do you think a major change is coming that will lead to this?

I definitely think a major change is coming in the way that society regards animals and our treatment of them.

Many have commented already about animal protection being the next big social justice movement.

The very fact that governments are scrambling to pass laws to stop people becoming more informed about how animals are treated by those who use them for financial gain, is a sign that the change is already happening.

It won’t be long before we look back and ask, how did we ever let animals be exported live or be used in circuses or rodeos, or be tortured in labs, or shot out in the wild?

Just like we look back now and ask how we ever treated fellow human beings as slaves.

So, those people who are risking their limbs, livelihoods and even their lives in raising awareness about the plight of animals and the inherent injustice involved, will go down in history as any other social justice warriors.

We might disagree about the tactics, but ultimately, not the justness of the cause.

You’ve already touched on this next question in terms of veganism, but would you say that in the time you’ve been running the ADO you’ve noticed further significant changes in the way the wider public perceives the issues of animal rights?

In general, despite everything that’s going on in regard to animals, it’s an exciting time for animal advocates, and we’ve noticed a big change in public perception while we’ve been involved at the ADO.

The more information that’s got out to the public about how we treat animals, the faster that change is happening.

A good example is horse racing. If we think of that expose about the terrible practices associated with the racing industry late last year, we really noticed people starting to question the whole practice.

And as animal advocates, horse racing was something you just didn’t touch in the past. You thought the Melbourne Cup was sacred to Australians.

But, now we’re seeing that even that is starting to be scrutinised and people are choosing not to attend the events, because of the animal welfare implications of participating in that kind of activity.

One exciting indication of how public perceptions are changing is that the ACT was the first jurisdiction to recognise animal sentience in laws. It has taken this long for any Australian jurisdiction to do that. It happened in October last year.

So, the ACT now has upfront in the objects clause of its animal welfare law that animals are sentient beings able to subjectively feel and perceive the world around them.

And the interesting bit is “animals have intrinsic value and deserve to be treated with compassion and have a quality of life that reflects their intrinsic value”.

Why we’re particularly excited about these words is because to talk about the intrinsic value of animals is in fact a language of rights.

So, we may be closer than we think to the time that animals have legally recognised rights protecting their basic interests in being free and not being tortured or killed.

Tara Ward and a Volunteer

Animal agriculture is the second biggest contributor to global warming after the fossil fuel industry, however for the most part it’s left off the agenda when it comes to challenges to the system regarding climate. Why do you think that’s the case?

Silence about animal agriculture’s massive contribution to climate change is particularly frustrating for animal activists.

One reason that it is being left off the agenda is that saying we need to reduce emissions from animal agriculture affects everybody, because it’s about what we all do on a daily basis.

Now, that can be really empowering, because it means that we can bring about change straightaway simply by changing our practices.

But, it’s also really threatening for people because it means they have to think about fundamental aspects of their lives, like what they eat and wear.

Someone once said that it’s much easier to fight for your principles than to live by them. So, while it’s commendable to go to a protest about some far away coal mine, what’s the point if you go away and eat a beef burger after the protest.

You could do so much more to reduce emissions by not eating the beef burger.

But, people resist the idea of having to change their own practices, which is frustrating, because the change is there and it’s so easy to make and our planet would benefit from it.

And lastly, Nelson Mandela made a statement along the lines of the true test of a nation should be how it treats those it incarcerates.

Do you think there’s room to make a similar assessment in relation to animals? And how would you say animal cruelty that goes on behind closed doors impacts society as a whole?

The quote from Nelson Mandela is a great one. He said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails”. And he went on to say, “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

It is interesting to imagine if that statement were applied to animals, especially those confined in Australian factory farms and research laboratories.

Despite the rhetoric that we often hear from the industry and government about Australia having some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, this country would be judged harshly due to the reality in these facilities.

We confine a staggering number of animals, who we could see as our very lowest citizens, to use Mandela’s term, in conditions that are objectively cruel, which is why we need special rules to allow them to keep happening.

As a nation we can’t uphold values, such as justice, liberty, compassion, or even the uniquely Australian value of a fair go, if we continue to allow horrific things to be done behind closed doors to fellow sentient creatures, who feel pain and suffering, just like we humans do.

These practices demean our society as a whole, and that reminds me of another really well-known quote in the animal welfare space, which is from Mahatma Gandhi. Of course, he was a great advocate of nonviolence.

Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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