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Shannon Keith Interview

Mary Catalano interviews Shannon Keith about her movie 'Behind the Mask'
 which details the Animal Liberation Front's movement. 

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Shannon Keith and Lucy

Q: For those who aren't aware of your project, can you briefly outline it for us? It seems that Behind the Mask is the first feature-length film that allows animal 'extremists' their voice.

A: "Behind the Mask" is a 72-minute documentary that focuses on the Animal Liberation Front, direct action, and the current repressive, so-called free governments to which activists are victim.

Using real undercover and underground video, "Behind the Mask" explores the world of those people who choose to break the law for a better cause, for the liberation and freedom of animals. While learning about specific individuals in the movement, the viewer is taken on a journey into the world of animal exploitation as well.

I decided to make this movie because I was frustrated that people would not listen to realism and logic, unless they saw a piece on television or in theatres. I realized the only way I was going to get people to listen to what I had to say about the animals and those who risk their freedom for them, was to make it a movie, so that's what I did.

I kind of woke up one morning and said, "I'm making a movie!" It took slightly over three years and I traveled all over the U.S. and U.K. I gathered as much footage as I could from other sources, interviewed as many people as I thought could lend a positive voice to get the message out and then sort of went from there.

Q: Given that, what is your desired audience for Behind the Mask? If it aspires to be more than another documentary for the choir's library, what do you regard as your role?

A: When I decided to make this movie, my focus was primarily on educating people who don't know anything, or don't know much about animal exploitation or animal liberationists. I hoped to educate as well as inspire. While making the movie, however, I realized this movie is also a great inspirational tool for those already in the movement.

After our Los Angeles premiere, I learned that both came true. I had the audience fill out questionnaires, and many who were already active discussed how much they learned, despite the fact that they though they knew it all. There were also people in the audience who hated the ALF. and wrote that this movie completely changed their perspective because they had no idea that ALF. activists were compassionate individuals. Many people also went vegan after seeing the movie.

Q: Without wanting to downplay any aspect of your project, can you point to any part of it that stands out for you as a highlight or a high point?

A: Making this movie was very emotional, to say the least. There were many high points, but having to choose something in particular, I would have to say that my first trip to the UK was the high point. I was introduced to many activists, many of whom I had sort of romanticized and never really thought I would meet. My respect for those individuals went even deeper after meeting them, and not only hearing, but also feeling, their commitment and struggle. I found it quite difficult to conduct interviews at times, as I was so moved and brought to tears on several occasions.

The movie has given me hope. I did not know what impact it would have on people, and since its short time since being released (June 2006), the response has been overwhelming. I made this movie for the animals and for the people who are involved in the struggle for animal liberation. Hearing people tell me that they used to actually test on animals and were taught to hate the ALF, and now, having watched this movie, stated that they completely changed their perspective, is amazing, and exactly what I was going for. So, to come full circle, I know that the years it took to make this movie, all of the money spent and agony in watching horrifying footage over and over again was worth it. This movie will continue to change people and help animals.

Q: Having met with activists, in the U.S. as well as in the U.K., how would you describe the average animal rights 'extremist'. Obviously animal activists are as individual as the animals they defend, but if you had to chararactise the animal 'extremist', how would you?

A: Well, I don't like the word 'extremist' to describe passionate individuals. The word carries negative connotations and also implies that individuals are going to extremes to fulfill their ideals, when really these people are doing what is coinsciously right, what they should do, which is to save animals.

In terms of those extremely passionate activists I have met, I think what motivates them is an overwhelming feeling that they must stop the torture; that if they don't, the animals will continue to suffer. These people care so deeply, and that I think comes from the inner core of one's being. Either you're a leader or a follower, you take risks, or you play it safe. These people are risk-takers and leaders and are not satisfied to sit back and wait, writing a few polite letters and holding banners at protests. They put themselves in the position of the animal. If they were stuck in a lab being tortured day after day, they would want out, and these people, being the most selfless that I know, will do what it takes to make that torture ends as quickly as possible.

These people are no different than individuals who have a passion and drive to do something, it is just manifested differently than the norm.

Q: But the mainstream media is, it seems, often unapologetic for its hysterical portrayal of animal activists. This begins with the risible (dismissing animal activists as 'thugs', etc.) and ends with what I regard as socially perilous (collapsing any distinction between criminality and 'terrorism'). Prompts the question: why?

A: The media latches on to anything it interprets as 'sexy'. Our governments have done an excellent job at diverting attention away from the real terrorists and the wars being waged that account for the murder of countless humans and animals, by focusing attention on so-called 'domestic threats' like the ALF and ELF.

Unfortunately, many are quick to believe this, because they have no basis in which to form any other opinion - again, the reason for making "Behind the Mask." I believe the true terrorists are those that imprison, torture and exploit animals.

Q: Absolutely. You sympathise with direct action for animals, clearly. But do you support it?

A: Yes, I support direct action for animals. I don't see any difference between supporting direct action for animals, such as breaking into a lab to get the animals out, and breaking into a concentration camp to get imprisoned humans out. As an attorney, I know first-hand about the 'legal' means to exhaust, however, I must say, I have hardly ever seen them work. The only time we've seen change really happen has been when people have taken the law into their own hands to fight injustice without waiting for an unjust system to hammer the banging rejection.

I know that if one of my companion animals was stolen and locked up somewhere, I wouldn't wait for permission from a court of law to get her out, I would just do it, and I know people feel the same way; they just have to personalize the situation.

The problem with many theorists is that they don't personalize. Our movement is so unique in that we are fighting for another species. The only way we can really dig in deep is to put ourselves in place of what is happening to them. Only then can we know what we should do. The resounding answer should be that everyone would rescue his or her own companion animals. What makes another animal any different? This is one of the reasons why I love Dr. Steve Best�s theory on extensional self-defense.

Q: There is a heated debate, though, about whether direct action helps or hinders the animal cause. In both camps, the voices are strident. I am of the opinion that we really can't know whether or not direct action aids our long term campaign. But for rescued animals, there is no debate. It does. What are your thoughts?

A: I believe that we are all cogs in the machine of abolition. There is an interconnectedness that must cooperate to achieve true animal liberation. Sometimes I cannot help but feel that those who are against direct action are not abolitionists, but are merely happy to take the welfarist approach in making larger cages until they're gone, however long that will take. When underground direct action complements a strong aboveground campaign, we have seen real change happen.

Q: Your animal rights work is not, of course, restricted to Behind the Mask. You are a qualified lawyer who specialises in animal abuse cases. I am interested in your evolution as an animal rights activist. For example, do you think of yourself as a lawyer who converted to animal rights or an animal rights activist fighting at a new frontier?

A: I became a lawyer for the sole purpose of helping animals. In college, after I received an unsolicited pamphlet from PETA on factory farming, I went vegetarian on the spot. Before I went to law school, I did not necessarily consider myself an 'activist' per se. I was involved with a lot of environmental issues in college and always loved animals.

When I became a lawyer, I began to meet animal rights activists that I ended up defending, who really introduced me to street protests and the like. I went vegan shortly after becoming an attorney, realizing it was hypocritical to believe in all the things I did and still consume and wear animal products. I�ve been vegan now for seven years.

My realization that I wanted to change the law so that animals were no longer considered property became broader. I was learning that the humans who fight for the animals are also oppressed and wrongly charged. So, one could say I got more involved with civil rights than I thought I would. To answer your question, I consider myself an animal liberationist who is active via my role as an attorney fighting for the animals and those who fight for them, as well as via the media.

Q: Okay. Could you delineate a few 'sample' cases that you've been involved with so that we have a feel for the role of legal specialist in animal exploitation?

A: Sure. My practice ranges from suing dog 'trainers' for injuring or killing my client's dog, to getting dogs off of 'death row', to defending animal rights activists in criminal court.

I obtained the largest settlement of its kind for the beating to death of a dog by a city employee that recognized the emotional distress of the dog's people. Emotional distress damages are extremely difficult to achieve with the injury to, or loss of, a companion animal in the US.

I also represented SHAC USA in a civil case wherein SHAC was being sued by HLS and an individual employee. I fought the injunction and case, and we won most of our defense on appeal. We also won attorneys fees against HLS. This is the first time HLS has EVER had to pay for bringing these frivolous lawsuits against activists.

Q: I imagine that kinda work is very stressful..

A: Yes, it's extremely stressful and sometimes disappointing. Most judges do not recognize that animals are sentient creatures that deserve rights and that the humans who risk life and freedom for them deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, not like serial killers and rapists, or worse, as we have seen the case may be. There are definitely times where I feel like giving up, when I feel like I have done everything I can and nothing seems to change things, but I stay focused on the animals. I sit on the couch with my rescue dogs and look into their eyes, and it's a constant reminder that I must keep fighting. No matter how frustrating it gets, change is happening, although it's slow coming.

Q: Many in our movement have argued, in short, that the proximity of chimpanzees to human kind means that our restriction of legal rights to ourselves ('the third chimpanzee') is untenable. Their closeness means it is difficult, with any clear conscience, to deny chimpanzees legal protection. What are you thoughts on the legal status of animals: i.e. as it is and as it should be?

A: The reason I became a lawyer in the first place was to change the law. I could not believe that animals were considered property and it was my goal, and still is my goal, to change that 'law'.

While I understand where such thinkers are coming from, I find it extremely difficult to grasp the concept of only allowing legal rights to chimpanzees. Furthermore, what does it achieve for the chimp? Does it mean that they will no longer be exploited in zoos, circuses and experimentation labs? What are the implications? I believe that legal standing should be afforded to all animals. I think it's speciesist to say that because they are most like us, the almighty human, they should be given rights and not other animals.

Yes, it seems unrealistic right now, but I would have a very hard time fighting for just one species. Baby steps may be the answer for some, but in my world, I fight for complete abolition.

Q: You obviously want to change minds through Behind the Mask so what would you regard as evidence of having done so?

A: Like I suggested before, having people approach me and say that the movie changed their view on the ALF and direct action, having people go vegan, having people say they no longer believe in testing on animals for medical purposes, these are all comments I have received from people who sat down to watch "Behind the Mask" as meat-eating skeptics.

Obviously, I want "Behind the Mask" to reach as large an audience as possible, which means cable television and/or a theatrical release. I feel the journey has begun and I am excited to see what others have to say about their ignorant lives being shattered.

To puchase a copy of Behind the Mask or watch a trailer for the film click here

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