The Problem with Open Rescue

I have tremendous respect for Wayne Hsiung. Among other things, he founded Direct Action Everywhere, which I believe, whatever its faults, was the most dynamic animal-rights group to emerge in the 2010s. But I disagree with his continued emphasis on open rescue, by which I mean publicly liberating nonhumans with the expectation of being arrested.

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with this tactic. In fact, I think it’s incredibly courageous. I just don’t think it’s the best use of movement resources at this historical moment. In a recent blog post on his Simple Heart Substack, Hsiung acknowledged legal issues resulting from open rescues have sidelined him and others to a certain degree.

“After facing four separate felony prosecutions, in rapid succession starting in the middle of 2018, I took a leave from open rescue work,” he said. “Then, in 2019, I left leadership in DxE, and I stopped advocating for open rescue… Virtually all the members of DxE leadership who were charged, along with leadership in other organizations such as Meat the Victims, stopped doing rescue work in the face of legal repression.“

Hsiung goes on to note he and his comrades have since won two court cases and remain free. If he’d know this would be the outcome, he would never have stopped open-rescue work and now plans to redouble his efforts. But are we to assume Hsiung and others will continue to win all of their cases and remain out of prison? Maybe that will happen, but I doubt it.

I hope Hsiung and his comrades take the following as a compliment, because that’s what I intended it to be. I think they’re worth more to the animal movement out of prison than they are in. I’m not oblivious to the power of narrative. The sacrifice of Animal Liberation Front and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty activists inspired me a great deal when I first became interested in anti-speciesism.

However, I don’t think the animal movement is in an advanced enough state that the benefit of this compassionate vanguard going to prison for a prolonged period outweighs what they could achieve out in the world. Surely, they will get some favorable coverage in sympathetic outlets, but I’m not sure this will be enough to make their sacrifice worthwhile.

We also need to factor in other opportunity costs. How many movement dollars, activist and lawyer hours will be dedicated to organizing the legal defense of Hsiung and his comrades? I don’t mean this to be a rhetorical question. I genuinely don’t know the answer, but I suspect it will be a lot and already has been quite a bit.

In the same post, Hsiung recounts the paralyzing fear of repression the movement felt in the wake of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty prosecutions. I agree we shouldn’t be paralyzed by fear, but I think we need to be honest about the impacts of such repression. While writing a book about SHAC, I got a better sense of this than I had previously.

Many of the leaders of this campaign didn’t just drop out of the animal movement, they dropped off the map entirely. Some of those I tracked down outright refused to talk to me for fear of legal consequences. Others consulted lawyers and subsequently decided it was a bad idea. This was in relation to things they had done 20 years prior, in some cases.

Now, I don’t think Hsiung and his comrades will face the same level of repression SHAC activists did. There are a lot of reasons for this. Perhaps most importantly, the former group seem to be committed pacifists, while the latter were willing to employ violence or at least the implied threat of it. But spending years in court and behind bars can affect people in ways they don’t expect.

Some may emerge from this experience more dedicated to the cause than ever, but this isn’t always the case. In my view, the struggle for animal liberation is a marathon, not a sprint. If we were a few well-publicized imprisonments away from making significant progress toward a vegan world I would feel differently, but I don’t think that’s where we are. We need to engage in activism that’s sustainable over the long haul.

Again, the movement should consider what these incredibly talented open rescuers — as well as the money, lawyers and activists supporting their legal defense — could otherwise accomplish for animals. Personally, I think accelerating the development of cellular agriculture through the political process should be a priority. However, I think there are a lot of different paths Hsiung and others could pursue that would be more beneficial than open rescue.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at