Open Rescues: How UPC Introduced This Strategy to U.S. Activists
From Animal Rights Activism Articles Archive

FROM Karen Davis, PhD, President United Poultry Concerns (UPC)
August 2015

Revealing the faces of these birds and other animals as they are being compassionately lifted form the dead piles onto which they were thrown, the cages upon cages surrounding them, or the manure pits into which they fell, showing them responding to a little cup of water in a close-up shot after all they have been through—this is what the animal liberation movement as a whole and the ALF and open rescuers, whether masked or otherwise, must try to accomplish. 

United Poultry Concerns’ Forum on Direct Action for Animals, June 26-27, 1999, in Machipongo, Virginia, introduced U.S. animal activists to the strategy developed by Australian activist, Patty Mark, of Open Rescues, in which undercover investigators admit to rescuing animals and documenting the conditions of their abuse instead of liberating animals behind a mask. UPC President Karen Davis describes this landmark forum and the revolution it created in farmed animal rescue strategy in the U.S. in “Open Rescues: Putting a Face on the Rescuers and on the Rescued” in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals. Read the story here:

Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals
Foreword by Ward Churchill
Edited by Steven Best, PhD and Anthony J. Nocella II
Published by Lantern Books 2004

Open Rescues: Putting a Face on the Rescuers and on the Rescued
By Karen Davis, PhD

Using darkness as a cover and compassion as their guide, five members of Mercy For Animals (MFA) covertly entered sheds at Ohio’s two largest egg producers . . . following criteria for a recently documented technique known as open rescue.
–Rachelle Detweiler, “Missions of Mercy,” The Animals’ Agendai

When I first started writing this essay I thought I would discuss the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) practice of concealment versus disclosure of personal identity as a strategy for achieving animal liberation through appeals to public perception and public conscience. Bus as I sifted through my files looking at the faces of animal liberators both masked and unmasked, as well as at undercover rescue scenes in both video format and verbal evocation, I decided that, important as the mask question may be from the standpoint of public perception, of equal and perhaps more fundamental importance is that of the rescuers’ overall body language and the expression of their hands in a videotaped rescue intended for general audiences. When it comes to faces, it seems that the most important ones to be shown in a rescue operation taped for public viewing are the faces of the animals themselves. Those faces and the suffering they express tell the story of their terrible lives.

Karen Davis
Karen Davis holds a hen rescued from Little Rhody Egg Farm.

The “Disappearance” of Animals in Western Culture

Attention to the plight of animals raised for food is still relatively new in the United States. In 1987, when the first ALF action at the Beltsville (Maryland) Agricultural Research Center was conceived and carried out, even ALF activists who used the term “animal rights,” according to Ingrid Newkirk in Free the Animals, “had not yet incorporated the systematized abuse of ‘farm animals’ into their agendas, couldn’t ‘see’ an attack on the farm industry at all.”ii One reason they couldn’t envision such an attack was that they didn’t yet “see” the animals entombed within the industry. In his essay “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger discusses the disappearance of nonhuman animals into institutionalized anonymity in Western society, a process that he says began in the nineteenth century and was completed in the twentieth century as an enterprise of corporate capitalism.iii Berger’s observations about animals in zoos, which to him symbolizes what our culture has done to animals as part of our overall rupture of the natural world, are equally applicable to factory-farmed animals. By extension, he includes them in his analysis of the cultural marginalization and disappearance of animal life, with the difference that nobody is expected even to pretend to look at a factory-farmed animal, or to remember that factory-farmed animals were ever “wild” and free, and could be again. “The space which modern, institutionalized animals inhabit,” Berger states in speaking of zoos, “is artificial”:

In some cages the light is equally artificial. In all cases the environment is illusory. Nothing surrounds them except their own lethargy or hyperactivity. They have nothing to act upon—except, briefly, supplied food and—very occasionally—a supplied mate. (Hence their perennial actions become marginal actions without an object.) Lastly, their dependence and isolation have so conditioned their responses that they treat any event which takes place around them—usually it is in front of them, where the public is—as marginal. (Hence their assumption of an otherwise exclusively human attitude—indifference.) . . . At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.iv

This condition—of blind, and blinding, encounters between a potential human audience and the animals involved in a rescue operation—is what the ALF and open rescue teams, insofar as their purpose is winning public sympathy, have to overcome, because as Berger says about animals at the zoo, they “disappoint” the public, especially the children—“Where is he? Why doesn’t he move? Is he dead?” As for the adults, “One is so accustomed to this that one scarcely notices it any more.”v

The human onlookers adjust. After all, it isn’t their own fate they are seeing, even if, in some essential way, that’s what they’re looking at. They go to the zoo almost in the same way that they go to eat—to entertain themselves and their children, like a trip to Disneyland, which succeeds where zoos fail, because, like hamburgers and chicken nuggets, “animated” creatures are more prized by our culture than living animals are. As for the animals, they are imprisoned in an impoverished world imposed on them which their psyches did not emanate and which they do not understand. Factory-farmed animals are imprisoned in total confinement buildings within global systems of confinement, and thus they are separated from the natural world in which they evolved, including their family life. They are imprisoned in alien bodies manipulated for food traits alone, bodies that in many cases have been surgically mutilated as well, creating a disfigured appearance—they are debeaked, detoed, dehorned, ear-cropped, tail-docked, and so on. Factory-farmed animals are imprisoned in a belittling concept of who they Outside the animal rights community, and the intimate confines of their own lives, these animals are unreal to almost everyone. They are not only prisoners but, in a real sense, they are the living dead. The entire life of these animals is a series of overlapping burials.vii

Factory-farmed animals go from being in wombs and eggs in factory hatcheries and breeding facilities to being locked up (until they go to slaughter, unless they die first) in CAFOs—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. They are thus buried in a rhetoric of exploitation equivalent to the layers of material cover-up in which their “silent” suffering goes on. The purpose of their existence is to be buried in the gastrointestinal tract of a human being. In the United States, hens deemed no longer fit for commercial egg production are literally buried alive in landfills after being entombed for a year or more in metal cages inside the walls of windowless buildings.viii According to Australian activist Patty Mark, when the manure pits are bulldozed at the end of a laying cycle, “any live and/or debilitated hens still stuck in the manure are simply scooped up with the waste and buried alive on the trucks.”ix

The Role of the ALF

The ALF seeks to expose our society’s enormous cruelty to nonhuman animals. The ALF is set up to rescue individual animals from specific situations of abuse, with a view to ending all of the abuse, and to wreak economic havoc on animal exploiters with the goal of making it hard, and ultimately impossible, for the exploiters to continue doing business. The ALF also supports property damage on moral grounds: “[W]hen certain buildings, tools and other property are being used to commit violence,” ALF spokesperson David Barbarash explains, “the ALF believes that the destruction of property is justified.”x In considering these goals I am reminded of what Aristotle said in the Poetics about the goals of tragic drama with respect to audience response. He said that tragic drama should arouse pity and fear in the audience: pity and compassion for the victims, fear and horror directed at the cause of the victims’ suffering. Similarly, the ALF seeks to arouse pity and compassion for the animal victims (the audience in this case is the general public, including the news media and the exploiters themselves), and to instill fear of economic destruction—loss of livelihood, funding, business, and credibility—in those who profit from institutionalized animal abuse. “[I]n the end, make sure it’s the animals abusers who really pay,” says the ALF.xi

Since the public at large is the ultimate cause of all the animal abuse being exposed, in laboratories, on factory farms and elsewhere, it is orally and strategically appropriate, necessary in fact, to instill a “fear of oneself” in all audiences for having passively or actively contributed to the suffering and abuse taking place behind the scenes. All of us, in our conscience at least, should have to “really pay” more than a mere token of regret. In the brief discussion that follows, I shall concentrate only on the “pity” aspect of what many of us regard as the greatest tragedy on earth—our species’ smug and evil treatment of the other animals who share this planet, including their homes and families—and on how to get audiences to identify compassionately with the animal victims and their rescuers. My illustrations are drawn mainly from recent battery-hen farm investigations, in which all of those involved were, in one way or another, “unmasked.”xii

United Poultry Concerns Forum On Direct Action for Animals

At a small conference on direct action in 1999, Australian activist Patty Mark introduced many US activists to the concept of open rescues. Most participants in the conference were accustomed to the “traditional” notion that people who rescue animals ought to act clandestinely so they can avoid detection and arrest and continue to free as many animals as possible. So when confronted with the idea that people can freely admit to rescuing animals, many—if not most—of the conference participants seemed somewhat skeptical.
–Paul Shapiro, “The US Open,” The Animals Agendaxiii

On June 26-27, 1999 United Poultry Concerns held a historic—the first ever—forum on direct action for animals. Speakers included: Katie Fedor, founder of the Animal Liberation Front Press Office in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Freeman Wicklund, an outspoken ALF advocate and founder of the ALF advocacy magazine No Compromise, who in 1997 renounced his support for the ALF in favor of strategic nonviolence based on Gandhian principles;xiv and Patty Mark, founder of Animal Liberation Victoria, editor of Action Magazine, and Coordinator of the Action Animal Rescue Team, which conducts non-violent rescues inside Australian factory farms.xv The forum, which I conceived and organized, was inspired in part by a statement by philosopher Tom Regan concerning ALF activities in his essay on “Civil Disobedience” in The Struggle for Animal Rights. Instead of concealment, Regan wrote, “[W]hat I think is right strategy and right psychology is for the people who liberate animals to come forth and identify themselves as the people who did it.”xvi

During the forum, the question of concealment verses open acknowledgment of one’s identity in conducting illegal direct actions for animals expanded into a wider range of issues surrounding this question. The larger focus resulted from the showing of two different videos of recent animal rescues: an ALF raid at the University of Minnesota and a battery-caged hen rescue at an egg facility in Australia. xvii The Australian video shows the Action Animal Rescue Team’s well-planned rescue of several hens. It documents the conditions in which the hens live inside the battery shed. We see the hens’ suffering faces up close. We watch and hear a hen scream as she is being lifted out of the molasses-like manure in which she is trapped in the pits beneath the cages. The video captures not only the terrible suffering of the hens being rescued, but the gentleness and firmness of the rescue team (as expressed, for example, by their hands), who, as an integral part of their videotaped operations, contact the police, get arrested, and explain their mission with the intention of putting battery-hen farming visibly on trial before the public and in the courtroom during their own trial for trespassing and theft.

By contrast, the video of the ALF break-in and rescue of animals at the University of Minnesota shows rescuers dressed in black, Batman-like outfits wearing black masks. All rescues are shot at a long-distance angle. The rescuers look and act like remote, stylized figures rather than flesh-and-blood people, and the animals, including birds and fish, are so far away that it is difficult to be sure what kinds of birds, for example, are being taken out of the cages.xviii Where the Australian direct action shows suffering, compassion, a trained team, and the highly skilled use of a camera, the ALF video shows a posturing, self-centered rescue—despite the anonymity of the rescuers—in which empathy for the victims, however felt, is visibly lacking. Significantly, there is no involvement between the ALF rescuers and the animals they are liberating, as there is between the rescuers and the hens in the Australian video. The body language of the ALF rescuers is “choreographed” to resemble swordplay, in the style of Zorro or Batman.

The forum overwhelmingly chose the Australian operation and style of direct action over the characteristics depicted in this particular ALF operation. Attendees felt that the Australian video was a model for the kind of activism that, when aired, would move and educate the public, whereas the ALF video we looked at (part of which had recently been televised in Minneapolis-St. Paul), with its focus on the masked and posturing rescuers rather than on the animals and without any show of sensitivity toward them, would have a negative effect, or no effect, on most viewers. Another critical difference was in the settings: on the one hand you see the obviously filthy and inhumane battery-cage facility; on the other hand you see an antiseptic-looking laboratory at the University of Minnesota in which the suffering and cruelty are harder to convey.

Undercover Investigations of Battery-Caged Hen Facilities

Inspired by the Australian model, three undercover investigations of battery-caged hen facilities, including hen rescues, were conducted in the United States in 2001: In January, members of Compassionate Action for Animals (CAA) openly rescued 11 hens from a Michael Foods egg complex in Minnesota;xix in May, members of Compassion Over Killing (COK) openly rescued eight hens from ISE-America in Maryland;xx and in August and September, Mercy For Animals (MFA) openly rescued 34 hens from Daylay and Buckeye egg farms in Ohio.xxi All three groups took powerful documentary photographs that can be found on their websites. In addition, Compassion Over Killing and Mercy For Animals produced high-quality videos of what went on inside the houses: COK’s Hope for the Hopeless and MFA’s Silent Suffering.xxii Both groups published explanatory news releases, provided press packets, and held well-attended press conferences that resulted in significant news coverage by The Washington Post, United Press International, The Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau, and more. Because Compassion Over Killing held their press conference first, and, in doing so, set the standard for the equally impressive investigation conducted by Mercy For Animals, I will cite COK’s investigation to illustrate the characteristics of what I and many others regard as a well-organized open rescue operation with charismatic effects.

On June 6, 2001, Compassion Over Killing (COK) announced that the group would hold a press conference that day to “present findings of a recent investigation into animal treatment at an International Standard of Excellence (ISE) egg facility in Cecilton, Maryland.”xxiii According to the news release,

  • COK’s month-long investigation began after the organization was denied a tour of the facility. ISE’s Cecilton facility is “home” to 800,000 laying hens, all of whom live in “battery cages” (long rows of wire cages holding up to 10 birds per cage).
  • The investigators documented in videos and photographs numerous acts of animal cruelty at ISE, including immobilized hens with no access to food or water, hens living in overcrowded cages with the decomposing corpses of deceased hens, and sick and injured hens suffering without veterinary care.
  • After making repeated nighttime visits to the facility to document abuses, COK investigators requested that the Cecilton authorities prosecute ISE for animal cruelty. But no action was taken. So, on May 23, 2001, COK investigators rescued eight sick and injured hens in dire need of immediate veterinary care.
  • On June 6, 2001, the details of the investigation and rescue were posted at Also, COK’s new 18-minute documentary on the investigation and rescue, Hope for the Hopeless, would be aired and distributed to media at the press conference.
  • According to COK investigator Miyun Park, “The animals at ISE are suffering miserably. If consumers knew how animals are abused by the egg industry, they would never eat eggs.”
  • Expert veterinarian Eric Dunayer, VMD, viewed footage taken from ISE’s Cecilton facility and stated, “The videotape shows hens subjected to extremely inhumane conditions that inflict severe deprivation and injury. I have no doubt that these hens suffer terribly under such conditions.”
  • ISE is an international animal agribusiness based in Japan. Its US affiliate, ISE-America, holds captive 5.6 million egg-laying hens: 2.3 million in South Carolina; 1.5 million in Maryland; 1.3 million in New Jersey; and 500,000 in Pennsylvania.
  • COK’s investigation is not ISE’s first run-in with animal advocates. On October 17, 2000, ISE was found guilty on two counts of animal cruelty in New Jersey. The case involved two live hens who were found tossed in a garbage can filled with dead hens.

The Drama of Open Rescue

Mirroring the group’s investigative procedure, COK’s news release is very thorough. It explains the cause, process, and nature of the investigation, while placing it within a context of information about the company, ISE-America. The group did their homework. They provided veterinary validation of their animal cruelty charges (their press packet contains several letters from veterinarians), and they produced a dramatic video documenting their claims. Hope for the Hopeless combines the professionalism of the rescue team with the pathos of the hens. It overcomes a fundamental difficulty in drawing public attention to the plight of factory-farmed animals: lack of drama. However, when the rescue is visually crafted and deftly narrated, as COK’s is, then you have the drama, the dramatis personae, the tension, a storyline, and a “resolution,” in what must otherwise appear to be, as in reality it is, a limitless expanse of animal suffering and horror—an eternal Treblinka, in the words of the Nobel Prize-winning writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, concerning the plight of all other animal species in relation to our own.xxiv Hope for the Hopeless shows the helpless victims and their heroic rescuers deep in the pit and under the shadow of the “enemy.” These elements, skillfully combined, should elicit public sympathy and outrage.

Otherwise, except for the “veal” calf, whose solitary confinement stall and large sad mammalian eyes draw attention to him- or herself as a desolate individual, all that most of the public sees in animals factories are endless rows of battery-caged hens, wall-to-wall turkeys, and thousands of chickens or pigs. What they hear is deathly silence or indistinguishable “noise.” They see a brownish sea of bodies without conflict, plot or endpoint. There is no “one-on-one”—no man beating a dog, say, on which to focus one’s outrage. To the public eye, the sheer number and expanse of animals surrounded by metal, wires, dung, dander, and dust renders all of them invisible and unpersonable. There are no “individuals.” Instead there is a scene of pure suffering—worse, suffering that isn’t even grasped by most viewers, who are more or less consensually programmed not to perceive “food” animals as individuals with feelings, let alone as creatures with projects of their own of which they have been stripped.

Open the Cages

Each individual life we save means the world to us and to them. Pure bliss is watching a withered, featherless, debilitated, and naked little hen look up at the sky for the first time in her life, stretch her frail limbs, and then do what all hens adore: take a dust bath!
–Patty Mark, “To Free a Hen,” The Animals’ Agendaxxv

Revealing the faces of these birds and other animals as they are being compassionately lifted form the dead piles onto which they were thrown, the cages upon cages surrounding them, or the manure pits into which they fell, showing them responding to a little cup of water in a close-up shot after all they have been through—this is what the animal liberation movement as a whole and the ALF and open rescuers, whether masked or otherwise, must try to accomplish. Regardless of what else is involved, as Ingrid Newkirk says in Free the Animals, the emphasis of the story must remain on the animals—getting them out safe and getting them seen.xxvi The moment of rescue is their moment. It is their “role,” and their right, at that moment to be in the spotlight, and thus also to shed a light on all of their brothers and sisters who, together with them, deserved and would have chosen to be freed, and to be free.


[i] Rachelle Detweiler, “Missions of Mercy,” The Animals’ Agenda, Vol. 22, No. 1 (January-February 2002), 11.

[ii] Ingrid Newkirk, Free the Animals (Chicago: The Noble Press, 1992), 336.

[iii] John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?” in David M. Guss, ed., The Language of the Birds: Tales, Texts, and Poems of Interspecies Communication (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 275-287.

[iv] Berger, 286-287.

[v] Berger, 285.

[vi] I examine the cultural practice of belittling nonhuman animals, especially farmed animals, in my book More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (New York: Lantern Books, 2001).

[vii] For a Marxist look at the “alienation” of factory farmed chickens (and by extension all factory farmed animals), see especially pp. 21-24 of my book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry (Summertown, TN: The Book Publishing Company, 1996). Revised and updated 2009.

[viii] “The simplest method of disposal is to pack the birds, alive, into containers, and bulldoze them into the ground. Euphemistically called ‘composting,’ it still amounts to being buried alive,” according to Canadian Farm Animal Care Trust President Tom Hughes, quoted in Merritt Clifton, “Starving the hens is ‘standard,’” Animal People: News For People Who Care About Animals, Vol. 9, No. 4 (May 2000), 1, 8. See also Chris Miller, “Cooped up: Animal rights activists say the transportation of chickens to slaughterhouses remains cruel and inhumane despite an increase in (Canadian) government regulations,” The Vancouver Courier, Vol. 11, No. 29 (July 27, 2001), 1, 3, 17.

[ix] See Patty Mark, “To Free a Hen,” The Animals’ Agenda, Vol. 21, No. 4 (July-August 2001), 25-26.

[x] Claudette Vaughan, “The ALF Unmasked,” Vegan Voice, No. 8 (December-February 2002), 9-10.

[xi] “The Secret Life of Cells: From the Website of the Animal Liberation Front,” Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 304, No. 1821 (February 2002), 20-21.

[xii] The masks worn by open rescuers of battery-caged hens are gas masks, used as a protection against the poisonous excretory ammonia fumes that permeate factory-farm poultry houses.

[xiii] Paul Shapiro, “The US Open,” The Animals’ Agenda, Vol. 21, No. 4 (July-August 2001), 27.

[xiv] See Freeman Wicklund, “Direct Action: Progress, Peril, or Both?” in this volume.

[xv] Mark, 25-26. Visit Animal Liberation Victoria/Action.

[xvi] Tom Regan, The Struggle for Animal Rights (Clarks Summit, PA: International Society for Animal Rights, 1987), 182.

[xvii] The ALF raid took place in the pre-dawn hours of April 5, 1999. See Erin Geoghegan, “Minnesota ALF Raid Stirs Debate,” The Animals’ Agenda, Vol. 19, No. 3 (May-June 1999), 12, 18. The Action Animal Rescue Team video was a 37-minute segment edited from a compilation tape called Pigs, Broiler Chickens, & Battery Hens—1995-1999.

[xviii] More than 100 rats, mice, pigeons, and salamanders were freed. See Geoghegan.

[xix] See Shapiro, n. 13 above. Michael Foods is the third largest egg company in the US and the world’s largest producer of “value-added egg products,” according to Egg Industry, January 2001, pp.2, 16.

[xx] See Shapiro, n. 13 above. ISE-America is the tenth largest egg company in the US, according to Egg Industry magazine, 16. Visit

[xxi] See Detweiler, n. 1 above. According to Egg Industry, January 2001, Buckeye Egg Farms ranks no. 5 and Daylay Egg Farms ranks no. 22 among the largest US egg producers. Visit the Mercy For Animals website.

[xxii] Contact Compassion Over Killing and Mercy For Animals about the current availability of these videos. -- UPC Editor, August 2015.

[xxiii] This investigation goes back ultimately to a phone call from a volunteer fireman to United Poultry Concerns in December of 1993. His crew had been called in to put out a fire at one of the ISE-America complexes in Maryland. He said he had no idea such a horrible place existed, and he would never eat another egg. In the winter of 1995 my then office assistant, Jim Sicard, and I paid a midnight visit to ISE-America, where we took photos and removed 10 hens. When COK codirector Paul Shapiro asked me in 2001 about battery-hen complexes near Washington, DC, I told him about ISE-America and how to get there. For the story of Jim Sicard’s and my rescue at ISE-America, see Jim Sicard, “Take the Chickens and Run! How 10 battery-caged hens came to live at UPC,” PoultryPress, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer 1996).

[xxiv] “In his thoughts, Herman spoke a eulogy for the mouse who had shared a portion of her life with him and who, because of him, had left this earth. ‘What do they know—all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world—about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.’” This passage appears in Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Letter Writer,” The Collected Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982). For a comprehensive look at human Nazism toward nonhuman animals, see Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust (New York: Lantern Books, 2002); and Karen Davis, The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities (New York: Lantern Books, 2005).

[xxv] Mark, op. cit., 26.

[xxvi] Newkirk, op. cit., 350.

Also see Karen Davis’s review of Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals.

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