Animal Protection > Activist Interviews

AUSTRALIAN ACTIVISM: MARGARET SETTER

It was 5am on a mild Easter Sunday morning. The lights snapped on in one of Australia's many battery hen death camp sheds. The first person to greet us was Margaret Setter. We were waiting for the police to arrive. I remember thinking at the time how her face betrayed no nervousness. She looked calm, yet determined. One never knew how the police would react to a bunch of activists prepared to get arrested for a battery hen!

Margaret Setter is a veteran of the '70s socialist and peace movements, the anti-nuclear movement, the feminist movement and the modern-day animal rights movement. In spite of many obstacles in Margaret's life, it has been her strength of character coupled with her eloquence of speech that has brought many people to the animal rights movement. These qualities alone have moved many hearts and minds to join in the struggle to liberate non-human animals.

When Margaret was young, girls generally left school at 15 and that is what she did, with only two years of high school behind her. In 1970, she joined the Workers Education Association. A tutor casually suggested she go to university, where she met Professor Ron Neale. Neale was a Marxist and through him she learnt about the transformation of society and how to make revolution possible. Although Neale died prematurely in 1985, he remains a significant presence in her life.

Margaret Setter has five sons and one daughter. She found the love of her life with her second marriage to Ken Setter. Ken himself is another effective Australian animal activist with a great story to be told. But, for now, we would like to introduce Margaret Setter, animal liberationist Australian-style.

Interviewed by Claudette Vaughan

Claudette: What does the word activism mean to you?

Margaret: I am a grassroots activist and, like most women, prepared to have a go at most things. My involvement in Animal Liberation means a lot to me. It provides structure and purpose to my life, and I enjoy the satisfaction of being involved in a common endeavour with like-minded people. The life of an activist is not always easy, but it is a life that is lived.

The work I do is fairly mundane. It involves office duties, helping with those seemingly endless tasks so essential to keeping the organisation running. But activism entails more than work ­ it is a way of life. Most of all, I like talking to people about animals rights, in the street, while on the bus, or wherever I encounter someone prepared to engage me on these important issues.

Animal Liberation regularly investigates and documents the squalid existence that is the lot of intensively farmed animals. Each investigation requires careful planning and the operation is carried out in the dead of night. Strict silence must be observed while negotiating barbed wire fences, or traversing paddocks made slippery by pig slurry, or even worse, littered with sharp thorns.

On one occasion we had to enter a battery hen shed. I am not the bravest person in the world and I am scared stiff of heights, but when you, Claudette, said: "Don't worry, Margaret, I will look after you," I thought: "Right, I can do it!" And I did! When the moment arrived I streaked across the paddock and reached the top of that ladder before I had time to panic.

Claudette: What kind of influence did the '70s peace movement have on your decision to become an AR activist, if any?

Margaret: Hardly any, I would say, at least not at any conscious level, although I knew of Peter Singer's activities and had heard stories in the media of institutionalised animal abuse. I think most unaware people believe that the publicity ends the abuse. I inhabited a different universe, where animal rights and vegetarianism were scarcely known and never discussed. Like most women of my age, my life revolved around paid work and caring for a large family.

I was already something of an oddity among my neighbours, having been involved in peace activities since the 1960s. I purchased my first television set in 1964. The Australian Government had just announced we would be sending troops to Vietnam. This was the first television war, with scenes of the most appalling violence coming into our living rooms.

Sensitised by personal experience of violence at the hands of an abusive partner, I watched in horror, wondering what on earth I could do about it. The answer came with an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald advertising a meeting at the Sydney Town Hall on December 1, 1966. With five small children in tow, I made the long trip into town. The Town Hall was packed to overflowing. "The war will be over in three months," I said to myself. It was to be seven long years before Australian forces were brought home.

That meeting changed my life. Not only did I make a host of new friends in the burgeoning peace movement but I met the love of my life, with whom I had another child.

Claudette: What was the defining point for you in becoming an AR activist?

Margaret: That came about some years later. By 1986, with our children almost grown up, Ken and I decided to take an overseas trip to England and Europe. At that time we were campaigners for nuclear disarmament, so I consider it quite ironic that a nuclear disaster at Chernobyl spewed out its radioactive dust on the very day we arrived in London.
While in London we participated for short periods in the perpetual vigil in support of Nelson Mandela outside the Embassy of South Africa. Our hero!

English breakfasts must take some of the blame, or credit, for making a vegetarian out of me. One morning, while staying in Bath, my favourite English city, I gazed at the egg and bacon on my plate, and decided that I would become a vegetarian as soon as I went home. A day or so later, I discovered an excellent vegan cookbook in an elegant bookstore in Milsom Street. Until that moment, I had never heard the word vegan.

Toward the end of 1988 I began subscribing to Animal Liberation Magazine. One issue contained a report about an inspection of Bunge Piggery in Victoria. Reading such stories resulted in many sleepless nights until the brain became conditioned. The panic and the anger lessened in intensity, the ethical commitment to change became dominant.

The opportunity to take action came with a newspaper advertisement calling for "500 heroes" to volunteer to rescue wounded water birds on the opening weekend of the annual duck season. The venue was Barrenbock Swamp, 13km from Griffith. It was to be the first of four trips to the wetlands, but that weekend stands out in my memory as one of violence and intimidation never equalled on subsequent occasions.

Claudette: You have petitioned Liverpool City Council to ban circuses in that area. What has happened with that?

Margaret: This campaign began with a letter requesting Liverpool Council to ban animal-based circuses from performing on public lands. A councillor friend arranged for me to address Council on the issue. They listened in silence and when I asked if there were any questions I distinctly heard one Councillor remark that he'd better go home and let the budgie out of its cage! At least a decision was made to hold another meeting to hear the views of all parties concerned.

We were in for a shock when we arrived for the meeting some months later. It was the first and last encounter we would have with Robert Perry, co-owner of Perry Bros. Circus and the most opportunistic and street-savvy individual I have ever known. About 10 representatives of the Circus Federation of Australia supported him. The RSPCA inspector treated us with courteous contempt and was not even aware of his organisation's policy on animal circuses. I had to provide him with a copy.

A short while later Ken addressed the Labor Caucus, Liverpool being Labor-dominated Council. It appeared we had the numbers to get a ban. We hadn't reckoned on the guile and wit of Robert Perry who wasted no time in going to the media, threatening to attend the council meeting accompanied by two elephants.

The mayor panicked and the ban was called off even before the meeting was held. The elephants didn't materialise but Mr Perry brought along 70 or so circus hands who shouted and stamped their feet throughout the meeting. Robert assured everyone "the Animal Libbers will get beat". And he was right for the moment at least.

We had made small gains. We had at least placed the circus issue on the agenda. There were other meetings, more publicity, before the matter ended, or so we thought.

Four years later many things had changed. Perry Bros were no longer in business, having sold out to Stardust. Animal Liberation continued to campaign vigorously against animal circuses. The Government responded with a set of standards, which brought much-needed improvements in the living conditions of captive animals. Liverpool Council was considering its own policy on circuses for which submissions were being sought.

We set to work doorknocking for signatures. Letters and signed forms came in from as far away as north Queensland. They totalled almost 1500. Council was sympathetic, but wary, having already lost two cases in the Environment Court. In the end, Council decided to impose conditions sufficiently stringent to keep circuses from applying to perform here. It had taken us eight years, but we had won in the end.

Claudette: Who do you most admire?

Margaret: That's a good question. I admire many, many people but I'll nominate Rachel Corrie. Rachel was a young American woman who joined the International Solidarity Movement and went to Gaza to help the Palestinians. On March 15 of this year she repeatedly positioned herself between a bulldozer and a house about to be demolished. She was clearly visible to the Israeli soldier manning the bulldozer, who ran over her twice, causing her to die of multiple brain haemorrhages. She also suffered four broken limbs and severe internal injuries. She was only 23 years old.

What makes her so special to me is that she knowingly risked and lost her life to protect the rights of people unable to protect themselves. Her parents uttered not one word of bitterness, choosing instead to honour her as a member of the global community; a person "filled with love and a sense of duty".

Claudette: I think the animal rights movement in Australia lacks a sense of urgency. How does Australian animal rights activism compare to overseas?

Margaret: I think we compare very favourably, all things considered. Remember, our movement is not yet 30 years old. Christine Townend founded Animal Liberation in 1976. Communications technology was then primitive by today's standards. Christine would have had a typewriter and a telephone but I bet she would have shared a photocopier belonging to some other organisation. By the time I became a committee member in 1990 the organisation had acquired a fax machine.

Now, with the advent of email and the world wide web our major campaigns have become national and even international in scope, an example of the former being our current campaign to abolish the dry sow stall.

Opposition to the globalised fast food industry has led to international campaigns. This has forced McDonald's to lift their game with respect to animal welfare. Once considered invulnerable to pressure, McDonald's has made some progress in this direction, however controversial the results may be. A cultural revolution is beginning. How far it will develop will depend on the people who articulate it in its many facets.

As someone once said: "The horizon of history remains open."