AN ANIMAL STORY-I recently responded to a casting call for a reality TV show. Producers were seeking folks to confess crimes—secret crimes for which they’d never been caught.
I figured this was a show that would never make it to air because only a fool would risk imprisonment and social retribution for a mere fifteen minutes of fame. Nevertheless, I decided to be that fool. I contacted the casting director and confessed my past crime, which arguably qualified as a terrorist act.(Photo above: This columns author, Charlotte Laws, is on the right. Pigeon is centered.)
I had participated in this midnight caper over a decade ago and frankly I was proud of it—so much so that I had already confided the details to family, friends, and law enforcement. Yes, my crime was no secret. I’d confessed the truth to federal agents when I was a lecturer at the FBI Academy in the late 2000s. Their response was the equivalence of a yawn—which was surprising since the FBI website defines my violation as domestic terrorism because of its link with an environmental, political, or social motive.
On the other hand, perhaps the nonchalant reaction of the FBI agents was not all that surprising because the absurd law that I’d potentially breached—the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA)—was passed by Congress merely to coddle big business, to preserve corporate profits, and to ensure that executives and CEOs remain motivated to make hefty political donations. The AETA still exists today, instilling fear in animal activists. It marginalizes them as “terrorists” and effectively muzzles their free speech.
How It All Began
It all started in the mid-2000s when a man named Red showed up at my monthly Directors of Animal Welfare (DAW) meeting with a pigeon named Twister on his shoulder. I had started this not-for-profit group in order to provide political representation for nonhuman animals in the Los Angeles area.
“These animals are special,” Red said. “Pigeons descended from heroes. They helped people during wartime. We have betrayed them. Now they are routinely killed as pests.”
Red wanted the DAWs to help with the pigeon cause. He had saved Twister from a crow attack, but most of his rescued birds had fallen prey to man-made hazards. Red had 220 feathered friends residing at his Torrance home, including two chickens and four mourning doves. It was unclear whether he was a hoarder (a person with a good heart who was over his head in providing adequate animal care) or merely an innkeeper with a very busy schedule.
Red explained how he always offered freedom to healed patients. But just because they were pigeons didn’t mean they were pigeon brained. They usually chose shelter with Red and dependable meals rather than risk the perils—hawks, falcons, owls, and malicious humans—that awaited them in the open air. Street pigeons live three or four years, while those in captivity can survive for 35. Red was a bit of a hero in his community. Residents knew they could count on him. Sick and injured birds were sent to him by groomers, pet shops, and even veterinarians.
There were two animal control officers from adjacent jurisdictions who called him a godsend. He would care for the most maligned creatures on earth when no one else would.
Angel was a blind baby pigeon who had tumbled from her nest. A lady asked Red to help her, and like 911, he was on the scene in minutes. Angel could not fend for herself in a complicated and vision-mandated world, so Red took her into his home and fed her. They went on errands to Home Depot, they played in his backyard, and Red gave the lady updates on Angel’s weekly activities, including the fact that she’d found a mate and given birth.
“I would normally never allow a pigeon to have babies,” Red said. “But I didn’t have the heart to take her eggs away. Angel needed these two little ones. She was such a proud mama.”
Angel and her babies were happy until the day they were murdered.
The Mass Slaughter
Torrance Animal Control had a fancy new truck that read “Torrance Police. Excellence through teamwork.” They contacted Red about his pigeons. No more than four were allowed per property, according to city law. He had 10 days to remove the animals. Red telephoned me about the predicament. The DAWs located two licensed wildlife rescuers, who agreed to take the critters, releasing some and finding homes for the others. I telephoned Torrance Animal Control to inform them that our organization was on the case. I was told that everything would be fine.
But there was no 10-day grace period. The shiny Torrance Animal Control truck and seven police cars pulled up to Red’s home on the following day. Officers bolted from the vehicles like military specialists, bent on rescuing hostages in enemy land. But there were no hostages. There was no enemy land. This was not a perilous situation. It was just elderly Red, Angel and her babies, and their feathered friends, many of whom were healing from past wounds.
Red was handcuffed and taken to the psychiatric ward at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where an officer laughed. “You will be here for at least 72 hours.”
Instead, Red was deemed sane and released within three. In the meantime, two DAWs had driven to Red’s home. They confronted Torrance Animal Control, who had taped off the area. They were told to leave. I spoke with an officer on the phone, reminding him that the DAWs would be removing the birds. He was evasive and would not reveal what was happening at the property.
But what was happening at the property was clear to Red’s next-door neighbor, who glanced out his window in horror. They were slaughtering the birds, one by one, with lethal injections. The ground was bloody, and syringes were scattered throughout the yard. The neighbor tried to intercede but was informed that all the birds were sick.
“Well, these two sure don’t seem sick, do they?” the angry neighbor yelled as two pigeons escaped from the handlers and flew to a wire above Red’s residence. They watched the humans slaughtering their friends for a minute and then flew away.
“Get back in your house right now,” an animal control officer barked at the neighbor. “And don’t come out until we’re through.”
Distraught members of the community huddled outside of the taped-off area. Some had brought injured pigeons to Red. They pleaded for the return of their loved ones. But animal control was not sympathetic.
“I just want to take my bird home,” one guy begged.
“Step away, sir,” an officer replied.
Only Twister was saved that day. An officer from the Redondo Beach Police Department, who was also Red’s friend, appeared at the scene and was able to finagle Red’s favorite bird away from Torrance Animal Control. She said there was a lot of dander in the house, but it was not as filthy and objectionable as the media later portrayed it to be. The home was red tagged by the County Health Department due to the bacteria, feces, and feathers on the premises. And Red was told that he would go to jail if he set foot on the property. The city also filed charges against him for animal cruelty as a hoarder.
“Oh God, they executed them all. My children have been slaughtered.” Red bawled when he learned about the fate of his birds. “They were not diseased. And I was helping them.”
Twister was examined by a vet and found to be healthy. How ironic that the one and only saved bird was not sick. But Torrance Animal Control still clung to their story that all the other animals were all too diseased and undernourished to be allowed to survive. I would soon have proof to the contrary, and I would learn that Torrance Animal Control had been negligent, in addition to being outright killers.
The shocking phone call came on the following day. “They may have overlooked some of the birds in the house,” Red said. “There were a couple living on top of boxes in the hallway. I bet they’re still there.”
It was illegal to enter Red’s home. It had been padlocked by law enforcement. And we could not ask the city of Torrance to make a further search, because we believed they would kill any remaining birds. They had reason to hide evidence and cover their tracks. There was an animal cruelty case pending, and officers would be deemed negligent—and cruel themselves—for leaving pigeons behind to starve, suffer, and die. Plus, if birds were found to be in good shape, the evidence could be used against Torrance.
No reasonable jury would believe that Twister and a few of her lucky feathered friends (located after the fact) were in good shape, while all the others were diseased. I called my friends in Los Angeles city government and pleaded with them to search the home. (I was a member of the Greater Valley Glen Council at the time and about to be appointed to the 912 commission.)
“It’s outside our jurisdiction,” a lawyer from the LA City Attorney’s office told me. “We can’t meddle in Torrance’s affairs. There’s an agreement between cities.”
I spoke to the mayor’s office, a city council member, two lawyers, a city commissioner, and a seasoned newspaper reporter. All offered the same advice: “Tell Red to break into the house.”
We had all become conspirators in the crime. We knew about the unlawful act of “breaking and entering” in advance, and we were circulating emails to other conspirators. Because our emails were traveling over state lines, crimes that would normally fall under local jurisdiction could have been ratcheted up to the federal level and could have led to involvement by the FBI.
I also figured that our crime might qualify as terrorism. The AETA is overbroad, vague, and arguably violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution. It is open to interpretation and subject to the whims of law enforcement. It specifically forbids activities which damage or interfere with the operation of an animal-related company or project; it also forbids activities which cause an individual associated with an “animal enterprise” to feel fear.
The AETA could be used against: a) civilly disobedient activists who illegally block the entrance to a fur store (thus causing the establishment to lose profits), b) activists who damage a beef transport truck (thus causing the establishment to lose equipment), c) activists who scrawl “meat is murder” on a wall (thus instilling fear in a nearby butcher), or d) a mother who rescues soon-to-be-beheaded mice from her son’s cruel science fair project (thus interfering with the animal-related presentation). According to the language of the AETA, any illegal act which falls under federal jurisdiction and which targets an “animal enterprise,” is potentially fair game, regardless of how minor the act may be.
I was not sure whether Red’s house qualified as an “animal enterprise” under the definition of the AETA (or under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, another ridiculous law on the books), but I was certain that my conspirators and I could go to jail. Of course, if I was deemed a terrorist or criminal conspirator, some of the most respected folks in Los Angeles government were as well.
While Red prepared for the big heist, emails between me and the other conspirators whizzed back and forth. A tenured UCLA professor agreed to drive the getaway car. She was 70 years old and had never committed a crime. We discussed the possibility of blaming the illegal break-in on the Animal Liberation Front by scribbling “ALF” on the door. But that idea was dropped because Red believed he could make it look as if no one had entered in the first place.
Red sneaked up to his house with his flashlight that day. He cut the padlock from the front door and replaced it with his own. He’d photographed it earlier, and a locksmith had sold him an identical model. No one would ever know there had been a switcheroo. The break-in would happen just before midnight.
“He’s heading into the house. So far, no cops.” The university professor gave me a blow-by-blow account of the caper from her cell phone in the getaway car.
Red’s house was in shambles. His legal files and computer hard drive had been confiscated by police, and an envelope with $3,000 was missing. He tiptoed from room to room with his flashlight until he saw a beautiful sight. It was a little boy pigeon, who normally nested in the back of a closet. He was perched in the center of the dark bedroom. He seemed to wonder where everyone had gone. Red was inside the house for exactly 38 minutes.
“He’s out. Oh, my goodness, he’s got a pigeon,” the professor hollered into the phone. “Get down here, now.”
That is when I drove to Torrance. I sloshed through mud puddles and up the grassy lawn of the house where Red, Twister, and the newly found pigeon were staying.
“Here he is. Isn’t he a beauty?” Red said. A veterinarian checked out the little boy and deemed him fit.
I put Red in touch with a big shot criminal attorney, who was a friend of mine. He was one of the lawyers who had successfully represented Michael Jackson in the well-publicized child molestation case. Shortly after “Big Shot” was hired, all animal cruelty charges against Red were dropped.
On the day following the illegal break-in, I got a second shocking phone call from Red. “I think there may be another pigeon in the house. That little boy’s brother likes to hide in the living room corner near the ceiling. I’m going back inside tonight.”
“Oh no!” I howled. I seemed to be trapped in an I Love Lucy episode.
The following evening was a repeat performance with the UCLA professor in the getaway car and the furtive midnight rescue. Red found the sibling as expected, and we got him checked at a bird clinic. “He’s in perfect shape,” the veterinarian announced.
Despite the dozens of poor birds who had been murdered, three pigeons had been saved; and Red would not be the birdman of the county jail.
As predicted, the reality TV show never happened. The casting director later phoned me. “We couldn’t find enough people to confess, and we didn’t want to go with a crime like yours.”
Although she did not explain what she meant by “a crime like yours,” it was clear to me. Television programs have advertisers, many whom use, torture, and kill animals to create their products or to carry out their services. For this reason, producers and networks are leery about venturing into the controversial terrain of animal activism and potentially alienating the deep pockets that sponsor their projects. It is risky to question (even indirectly) whether it is immoral to wear animals, eat them, or test cosmetics on them.
I was disappointed to learn that my story would not air because I had a hidden agenda: I hoped to prompt a discussion about the AETA and ignite a public campaign to abolish it. I hoped to assist, in my own little way, the largest group of victims in the world: nonhuman animals.
(Charlotte Laws, Ph.D. is a political pundit on BBC television and the author of the award-winning memoir, Undercover Debutante, which comes on the market in August 2019. You can follow her on Twitter @CharlotteLaws.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.