RALPH HAHNHEUSER: MAINTAINING THE RAGE
By Claudette Vaughan
First published in Vegan Voice

It could have escaped no one's attention that Australia's Live Export Trade was big news in the latter part of 2003. Both the Industry and Government have been embarrassed by disclosures of cruelty and downright callousness towards their cargo. Public outrage has never been more vocal or supportive. The message to Warren Truss and government is clear: The Live Export Trade must be abolished. Then, out of left field, news hit the headlines that somebody had fed pig flesh to a cargo of 72,000 sheep bound for the Middle East. That 'somebody' is Ralph Hahnheuser - a member of this country's animal liberation movement. Hahnheuser's history of direct actions has always been notable for their effectiveness, their aplomb and their finesse. Right in the middle of this media feeding frenzy up-roar, with Prime Minister Howard calling for Hahnheuser's head, Claudette Vaughan met up with him. The man was in high spirits. See for yourself.

Q. What were your thoughts?

A. I always try to remain very focussed and disciplined on the issue at hand. It is a big mistake as a campaigner to allow yourself to be distracted from the main issue, though you obviously have to remain fluid and react when necessary as the agenda unfolds and various unexpected twists arise.

Q. Did the campaign go the way you wanted it to go?

A. Campaign work is always a bit of a lottery. All you can do is prepare carefully and intelligently, and try and anticipate the major factors. Direct action is a powerful tool, but it needs a great deal of discipline to use in the public arenA. I was very surprised at the ignorant comments that came from RSPCA though. Even the government vet said on day one that sheep would not be harmed by a one off meal of small concentrations of human grade pizza ham, so I was very surprised when Hugh Wirth came out with his bombastic factually incorrect statements saying that the sky would fall in over this. I think the RSPCA and WSPCA lost a lot of credibility when they have a head that makes such basic veterinary science blunders. The VFF and other farmers groups that suggested that pig meat carries BSE (Mad cows disease) were also very ignorant (Human grade pig meat cannot carry BSE, as it does not contain spinal and brain tissue and pigs don't get BSE in any event). However, I can easily understand their agenda, so am not surprised by their disinformation and scare campaign. They probably just put a lot of people off of their Christmas hams by accident which is a bonus.

Q. Did it get out of control at any stage.

A. No, not really. The biggest problem is communications. When a story gets that big, your phone does not stop ringing. You go through battery after battery, interview after interview, and your message bank is constantly full. I now have 3 mobiles to try and handle the barrage and volume media interest in these types of effective direct actions. It was great to have news outlets around the world ringing for information about an action in AustraliA. We made world headlines in many many countries, even a front page in China and pushed Wacko Jacko off some front pages in Aus. That is an unprecedented public profile for any animal issue.

Q. What was your reaction when Prime Minister John Howard said: Throw the book at him.

A. In my view Howard is a very small minded and narrow man. Howard only cares about white western christian religion and money. That about sums him up. For him any issue is just about how much money is in it, unless it's against his conventional western christian principles. Animal issues just don't rate, and he has made it clear he will ignore any inquiry recommendations regarding the banning of live exports for cruelty reasons. So I was not surprised by his reaction, and just milked it for more publicity as many journalists were very impressed that Howard was commenting about the situation. I did wonder which book he was referring to though. was it the law book, the book of Islam, or even the Bible? I guess Howard with his extraordinarily narrow views probably only believes in one book anyway!

Q. What is going to be your defense in court? What's the worst that can happen to you?

A. Sorry, can't tell you. It's a proper matter for the courts to decide if a certain set of facts constitutes an offence in the various jurisdictions. Rest assured that I will speak on behalf of the defenseless animals on every occasion where we can pursade the magistrate that it's relevant to the charges, and that the criminality of any actions will be vigorously defended. I think this case will attract international attention, and may end up being a useful focus for the campaign to ban cruel live exports. There is certainly no slowing ofmedia interest, and the situation will be a very unusual one for the courts to have to deal with. The police at Portland were great, and despite having to lock me up for the night, we all got on well and all seemed to know that there were much bigger issues at stake than my incarceration. The charges are the alleged contamination of goods with the intent to cause economic harm or public alarm, as well as trespass. Other charges may still be laid on the 7th January 2004 at Portland magistrate's court. The charges have a maximum of 10 years jail. It will be a function of the court to determine my guilt or innocence, and what penalty (if any) will be applied. But in situations like this, I often think of that great essay Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau .

There is a wonderful paragraph which reads "I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did nor for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it. " This paragraph has been an inspiration to me for twenty years. I guess I may have the time to smile and read it many times yet, in the true spirit in which it was intended.

Q. Perhaps Dylan Thomas's: ' Do not go gentle into that good night' is more apt for you.

(laughter)

Q. What do you have to say to some quarters in our movement that have openly critised you for feeding pig flesh to the sheep destined for the Middle East?

A. Same as George Bush, I love Democracy, the only intelligent thing he ever said. I value diversity of opinion. However, I always expect critics to state what the alternative is, and don't just let them get away with naked criticism. In the real world, you often have a choice between several less than ideal options, and it's a matter of choosing the best path from available options, rather than vacillating in indecision. I don't have much time for people that criticise without an alternative. If they have a better alternative, I will always try and embrace that. I don't pretend I always get things right, but I give it my heart and soul, and sheer hard work and whatever intelligence I have to try and make a difference. I also think many of the initial critics were nor properly informed and did not question some of the initial media reports or the dissinformation from people like Hugh Wirth. I have had a lot of people say they now support what happened, despite initial reservations. That's healthy, and shows a robust and diverse level of debate within the movement. After all, you can never be more sure that someone is 100% wrong, then when they are 100% sure that they are right. Sorry, forgot who said that, but I have always used that as a reality check in my own life. Some people will never open their eyes to new ways forward, or question their own solid foundations after a lifetime of struggle. I am sometimes accused of being pigheaded (sorry about the pun), but I believe I am a true intellectual in the academic sense of the word, and will adjust even core values and beliefs if people can show they are right and I am wrong, or there is a more effective way forward.

Q. Did you achieve precisely what you set out to do?

A. That's another tricky one, as it will be a hot issue in the courts, and appropriate for the court to determine. At a campaign level however, there has never been an animal issue so high on the public agenda and so much in the minds of politicians. That's not just because of the recent actions, but also because of some great hard work by a variety of organisiations working at different levels. I am a big fan of diverse groups working cooperatively using their own different tools to achieve change. I always find it amusing when you see a direct action group try and lobby, or a lobby group try and do anything a bit out there or risky. Its a bit like trying to take a 4wd on a racetrack, it is not suited to going real quick. Likewise, if you take a sports car on a 4wd track, you just break it and it doesn't work real well. I see a lot of groups using the wrong vehicle for the wrong job. What you need is an awareness of which groups are the best vehicles for lobbying, or direct action, and have them coordinate their efforts for maximum effect.

Q. What advise can you give to other activists who are not familiar with the court process, if they were to find themselves in the same situation?

A. Start drinking heavily! To cope with courts, you need first and foremost an arrogant irreverence towards the system. You have to see it as a game of chess, with conservative thinking opponents. I have spent many years being prosecuted for battery hen raids, duck rescues, piggery investigations, and now live exports. People have thrown huge amounts of money at Animal Liberation in SA and myself personally to try and shut us down and silence us. We have been effective and powerful people want us silenced. They have not succeeded yet. I think partly, that is because some of us have learned from past legal lessons in other groups, how to tackle and fight legal cases and keep campaigning. It's not easy, but its possible. It requires many late nights in legal libraries and researching on the internet. It requires "balls of steel" when arguing for animals in front of often conservative judges, on a wing and a prayer. But the alternative is to forced into silence, and fate just too sad to even contemplate. The best legal defense is always attack!

Q. What kind of support have you had and equally what has the fall-out been, if any?

A. The support has been great, with many messages of support from around Australia and the world, and many much needed donations kindly flooding in. Heck, even had a message of support and congratulations from the Indian ministry of Animal Welfare that made my day. As for fall out, there is always some with these kinds of controversial actions. People's views are highly polarised, and it's certainly a controversial action that involves religious considerations. I've received a death threat that Asio are investigating, but that's par for the course these days. At the end of the day, you just have to balance up the pros and cons, and hope that those around you can capitalise on the opportunities that arise. Some can, some can't.

Q. How can we help?

A. We must first and foremost win this campaign against live exports. I don't explicitly seek any help for me personally, but if this case can be used as a vehicle to help further raise the profile of the suffering of live animals for export, then there are lots of things that can be done to help the animals (including this rapidly aging grey haired one). Join a local group, get active and protest against live exports, write letters, lobby your local MP, attend the court case dates as this case progresses to make sure media cover our side of things etc.

Q. Would you do it again?

A. No regrets, no surrender!

Q. You once said you had a dream to be the first person to prosecute the first ever SA Battery egg farmer. Does this still stand?

A. Through some terrific direct actions farm raids here in SA, we have managed to get some battery egg producers successfully prosecuted for cage overcrowding. It's a small step, but an important one in making intensive farmers accountable. As long as we have a private charity such as the RSPCA running cake stalls to fund prosecutions, we will never see widespread law enforcement of even existing animal protection laws. We need to make animal cruelty laws enforced by the state, i.e. a unit of the police, who will have the resources and bottle to tackle big producers making big money out of intense cruelty.

Q. What happened with your court case with the Battery Hen Raid the other day?

A. The farmers federation have spent an estimated $250,000 of their national fighting fund trying to bankrupt animal liberation SA and myself over the last 3.5 years. I am happy to report that we kicked their arse out of the bankruptcy court the other day, after spending $10.95 on our defense, and I am still grinning from ear to ear! It is very academically satisfying to beat highly paid lawyers at their own game. You have to learn to enjoy the small wins as they come along, as our game is full of hard fruitless work and limited wins.

Q. Where to from here? More direct actions? How did you come by the decision to make the Live Exports Debate a contentious religious issue in the first place?

A. I won't be slowing down as a campaigner. It is very important to keep evolving campaigns and ideas, and to not get stuck in a certain mode of operating. I am thinking of running as a candidate in the next federal election, as well as the usual range of non-violent protest tools. As campaigners we have less money and less resources than our opponents do. All we can do is work harder and work smarter, and hope we can make life a little better for the millions of animals treated so badly around the world. Part of working smarter is always to keep your opponents guessing as to what you will do next, so I am afraid I won't be telling you just yet! Stay tuned!