'It's for the animals': Vegan activists risking jail to expose farm 'secrets'

As Australian states look to crack down on animal activists with harsher penalties and the threat of jail time, Leah Doellinger remains undeterred.

In a bid to expose what she sees as the inhumane conditions involved in factory farming, she leads large groups of activists onto Australian farms in order to raise awareness by posting videos online, and occasionally “rescue” the odd animal.

It’s a preoccupation that has, she says, landed her in trouble with the authorities on many occasions.

“I’ve been charged 22 times since the end of 2017,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

After a November visit to a Queensland piggery, Ms Doellinger and a handful of her friends were later charged with trespassing and stealing six piglets from a Cameron Pastoral Company’s property. GPS coordinates in the metadata of their social media posts were ultimately their undoing, police said.

While her friend and fellow Instagram activist Brianna Lee Thauer pleaded guilty to charges in a Brisbane court last month receiving a good behaviour bond, Ms Doellinger is fighting the charges.

Leah (left) and fellow activist Brianna (right) with animals.
Leah (left) and fellow activist Brianna (right) removed pigs from a Queensland piggery. Source: Instagram
The two say they don't regret their charges. Source: Instagram
The two say they don't regret their charges. Source: Instagram

‘They’ve got no idea we’re there’

Ms Doellinger organises trespassing events dubbed ‘Meat the Victims’ which involve large groups of activists who descend upon animal farms to film inside.

“I take people into these farms to show them exactly what is happening so we can gain the footage and share it with the public,” she explained.

Despite the illegality, sharing the images on social media is part of “the big picture” of those involved in the activism.

According to her website, the first such event took place at a piggery on April 6, 2018, before she returned for a “lockdown action” with about 67 other activists. Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, she said numbers can sometimes be as high as 100 people.

“Most of the time we do this, they’ve got no idea we’ve even been there,” she said. “It’s only when we do a daylight action, and we purposefully want the attention, that they will know we’re there.”

Ms Doellinger started her activism in 2016 by attending vigil events and soon after began doing her “own rescues,” she said.

“We called them open rescues where you don’t wear a balaclava and don’t hide your identity because we don’t consider ourselves criminals.

“There is self gain in most crime, but what we do, there’s no self gain. We do it for the animals.”

Meat the Victims activists. Source: Instagram
Meat the Victims activists. Source: Instagram

Despite her constant run-ins with the authorities, having her home “raided” by police, and the sense that her activism has negatively impacted her employment, she doesn’t show any signs of slowing down in the face of harsher laws.

After attending court this week, she is due to return on March 31 when a trial date will likely be set.

While facing penalties contained in existing laws, her charges of entering premises with intent to commit indictable offences and stealing animals that are stock do carry the possibility of jail time.

In an Instagram post Ms Doellinger said she – and others like her – won’t be stopping their farm-invading activism.

“They can no longer keep their secrets hidden away where no one can see or hear the innocent begging for mercy but we can feel them and that is why we won’t stop,” she wrote.

Ms Doellinger believes there is no humane way to farm animals for meat. Source: Instagram
Ms Doellinger believes there is no humane way to farm animals for meat. Source: Instagram

Nationwide crackdown on animal activists

Since 2015, there has been a growing push in Australia to follow the United States in introducing so-called ag-gag laws, which enforce harsh penalties in order to deter animal activists from engaging in monitoring and investigative activities in the agricultural sector.

The introduction of the misleadingly-named Criminal Code Amendment (Animal Protection) Bill 2015 which ultimately failed to pass the Australian senate was the harbinger of things to come.

In recent months states across the country and the federal government have introduced bills and various amendments to legislation aimed at cracking down on animal activists trespassing on agricultural land.

As political backlash from the agricultural industry grew, Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned in an April press conference that vegan activists could face jail.

Given that such trespass offences would typically come under a state’s criminal code, the federal crackdown is largely “political grandstanding,” says Tara Ward, the co-founder of Animal Defenders Office, a community legal centre that specialises in animal-related laws.

But it’s clear the political mood has shifted heavily against activists. “Something changed last year,” she told Yahoo News Australia. “I think last year we just saw the exponential growth of both veganism as a lifestyle and animal activism” which has resulted in a renewed ag-gag push from governments.

In Queensland, new legislation means activists are facing penalties including up to five-years’ imprisonment for the use of a carriage service to incite a person to damage, destroy or steal property on agricultural land.

Trespassing poses a biosecurity risk, farmers say

National Farmers Federation CEO Tony Mahar told a Queensland Senate Committee inquiry into the bill last year that existing punishments “do not reflect the seriousness of the crimes and are totally inadequate in providing a deterrent to would-be and repeat offenders”.

“In addition to the deterrent factor, we hope the legislation will create increased awareness amongst law enforcement agencies and the court system of the growing and serious impact of these incidents on farmers and supply chain businesses,” he said.

Animal Liberation Victoria activists in Melbourne in 2013. Source: Getty
Animal Liberation Victoria activists in Melbourne in 2013. Source: Getty

In NSW, potential fines for activists have been increased significantly since August last year, meaning those perceived as creating biosecurity risks face the possibility of on-the-spot fines of $1000 and further fines of up to $220,000 per person.

“Vigilantes who are entering our farmers’ property illegally are nothing short of domestic terrorists – our farmers have had a gutful,” Deputy NSW Premier John Barillaro said last year.

Ms Ward rubbished the law, labelling it “disproportionate” to the crime and said many in the legal community were waiting for new measures such as these to be tested in the courts.

While Victoria is currently mulling similar fines to NSW over biosecurity concerns, ultimately the laws vary from state to state. For instance, in South Australia there is a legal defence if something is deemed in the public interest, something not available in other states.

While the piecemeal crackdown on activists across the states has thrown up a number of messy legal issues, it’s clear that new laws are designed to deter activists and public protesters.

“It’s clear that’s the government’s agenda here,” Ms Ward said.

But it remains to be seen if they will have the desired effect.

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