On the Importance of Open Rescue: Four Reasons to Get Serious about Liberation

On the Importance of Open Rescue: Four Reasons to Get Serious about Liberation

by Wayne Hsiung

Mei Hua never knew her mother.

From the moment she entered this world, she was on her own – pressed up against masses of strangers in a desperate struggle for survival. Less than half of them would live through the first few days. They were killed in gruesome fashion – stomped to death, buried alive, or torn to pieces in an industrial grinder.  

But in many ways, those who survived (like Mei) had it worse. Confined to a dark, filthy shed with barely enough room to move, forced to stand and sleep in her own excrement, suffering from all manner of injury and disease, and denied even the most basic freedoms (e.g. the right to look up into the sky), Mei’s life was a nightmare. Perhaps it was an ironic kindness, then, when one of her masters struck the back of her head and left her to die in a pile of filth. Delirious from head trauma, trampled by the other prisoners, and wasting away from dehydration and starvation, she lay there for untold days, surviving only by desperately feeding on the filth that surrounded her. 

No one bothered to help her. No one offered her a word of kindness. No one even remembered that she existed. If DxE investigators had not arrived on the scene, she would have died within hours. 

But to the industry that held her captive, that’s all fine and good. Because, according to them, Mei’s life was “Certified Humane.”

Mei’s tragic story is merely one example of a bigger problem. 

Powerful corporations have tricked us into thinking that animals can be “used” with compassion. They know that concern for animals is growing, as science, ethics, and empathy are pushing us toward a new frontier of social justice: species. The New York Times' Frank Bruni writes that there is a “broadening, deepening concern about animals that’s no longer sufficiently captured by the phrase ‘animal welfare.’ An era of what might be called animal dignity is upon us.” Vested interests, however, want to stop this new era from coming into being. So they respond as all corrupt institutions do.

They lie.

This is “humanewashing” -- a systematic effort to disguise brutal violence against animals as responsible or compassionate. And its growth is astonishing. Every week, a new article comes out in outlets such as The New York Times about the industry’s attempts to “lure the sensitive carnivore.” The fastest-growing restaurant in the world – Chipotle Mexican Grill – doubled its sales of pork after switching to a so-called humane supplier. And Fortune Magazine writes that humanewashing champion Whole Foods is taking over the country. A dizzying array of industry-funded standards (AHA, HFAC, GAP, AWA) has sprung up to feed this rising juggernaut of animal industry. But through it all, one thing has been dreadfully missing: the truth.

Providing a window into the world of animal abuse is Reason #1 for open investigation and rescue.

The industry’s greatest weapons are ignorance and complacency. Open rescue allows us to disarm those terrible weapons – and the fraudulent marketing that supports them -- with the power of truth. We have seen with our own eyes what happens behind closed doors, and what we have seen is far from humane.

But confronting corporate lies with the truth is just one aspect of the power of open rescue. There are three other reasons open rescue is vital at this crucial juncture in our movement’s history.

Reason #2: Undercover investigations – in which an activist obtains employment and secretly takes footage of a facility – face serious obstacles.

A close friend of mine worked as an undercover investigator for a major animal rights group. He shared with me the terrible difficulties of the job. Not only was he forced to participate in grievous acts of violence, but the footage he took was never good enough. “You need to get something more graphic. You need to do better.” was the constant refrain. And it got to the point that he began to seriously question the nature of his job. “Am I an activist, or am I part of the system?”

My friend’s experience illustrates three obstacles to the dominant undercover investigation model of activism pursued by large AR organizations.

An image from an undercover investigation by Mercy for Animals. 

Legal. The rise of Ag-Gag laws (which often make lying to an employer a criminal act) will increasingly make undercover investigations difficult to undertake.

Financial. An undercover investigation costs tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, and requires clumsy hidden cameras that are difficult to use even by the most skilled handler. This is one of the reasons that only large well-funded animal rights groups undertake such investigations. Grassroots activists simply can’t afford to.

Ethical. Undercover investigations generally require an activist to participate in the horrific abuse of animals. That is not only ethically problematic for the animals but leaves activists psychologically traumatized by the experience.

These obstacles are particularly stark when we seek to open a window into “humane” facilities. Funded by the multinational giants that have the most to lose from exposure – Whole Foods, Chipotle, and their ilk – such facilities are especially careful in hiring employees. Unless you fit race, gender, and nationality stereotypes, and have connections to current or previous employees, you simply will not be hired. Working at a humane animal farm might very well be the hardest-to-get minimum wage job in the country.

Open rescue cuts through all of these obstacles and gets to the truth. It overcomes legal barriers through civil disobedience. It cuts down on time and financial costs by allowing anyone with big heart and a smart phone to transform into a whistleblower. And it saves us from having to put both animals and activists through the trauma of a violent system.

Reason #3: Open rescue is a powerful statement of our opposition to an oppressive system.

Tales of the Underground Railroad were legendary in the 1800s. An elaborate program of shepherds, conductors, and stations guided fugitive slaves on their path to liberation. Risking severe punishment, and traveling only in the dead of night, activists escorted slaves on a hazardous journey to freedom in the North. They lived under floorboards and in barns, had elaborate code names and secret paths, and traveled lightly, and in small groups (often with only 1-3 slaves), to avoid detection. And though the number of slaves freed by the Underground Railroad was actually quite small -- the most famous conductor, Harriet Tubman, rescued 70 families and friends -- the paranoia triggered by the railroad had far broader consequences. Notably, anger over the Underground Railroad in the South drove the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled Northern states to cooperate with slavecatchers in returning slaves to their owners. The North’s resistance to compliance with the draconian act, in turn, was instrumental to triggering secession by the South, the eruption of the Civil War, and eventually the end of chattel slavery. 

Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad pushed the public towards abolition. 

Open rescue, if framed strategically, can serve a similar function for animal rights. It takes the liberation of animals directly into our own hands, and, by going in with our faces proudly uncovered, we dare the industry to try our actions in the court of public opinion. It creates viral stories that mobilize people to anti-speciesist sentiment throughout the country. And it inspires strong action from activists across the world (Patty Mark’s original open rescues have spawned countless organizations and actions in at least 3 continents, including some of the most effective organizations in animal rights, e.g. Animal Equality in Spain), unifying both moderates and radicals under the banner of direct action. Even Peter Singer, who is notable for his strong opposition to illegal tactics, has spoken in support of open investigation and rescue.  

Reason #4: Open rescue saves animals, and tells their individual stories.

When I started out as an activist almost over 15 years ago, I thought showing people the horrible violence was enough to change them. I had changed, after all, after being exposed to Meet Your Meat. Surely, the rest of the world could change in the same way. So I set out to do just that. I handed out nearly a hundred thousand vegan leaflets, and showed tens of thousands of people Meet Your Meat. And I waited for the vegan testimonials to trickle in. “I’m saving lives,” I told myself.

It didn’t happen. In fact, the vegan society at my college actually declined in size in that same time period. And I was left to puzzle over the results. While we have given an entire talk on the subject, one insight, based on work by ethicists and psychologists studying the moral emotions, was key. All of the information I was showing was depersonalized. It showed animals in nameless hordes, and as vessels of violence, and not as living, breathing beings with feelings and a family. It didn’t tell their story.

This, unfortunately, is one of the limitations of undercover investigations. We obtain a glimpse into the violence of the system, but learn nothing more about the victims of that violence because all we have is a glimpse. Open rescue completely changes that. We can meet individual animals like Mei, and see them rescued from torment. We can see them heal, strengthen, and even flourish, and use their examples as a vision for the way the world ought to be. We can, in short, tell their stories.

Storytelling is one of Direct Action Everywhere’s organizing principles for a reason. Stories inspire people in a way that dry information cannot. And the stories that come from open rescue are so much more powerful, and real, than almost anything else we can do. Lincoln is reported to have told the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a terrifying story of human slavery, that her little book started the Civil War. We need to tell just as inspiring stories. And we can only do that with open rescue.


In the weeks and months to come, you will hear many more stories of open rescue. Most of them will be about the animals whose lives were saved (and, sadly, some will be of those who were left behind). But you will also hear the stories of research, planning, and execution -- stories that explain how the open rescue was done.

Our goal is to take open rescue across the country and world. If we truly believe what we say we believe -- that our lives are no more valuable than theirs -- then it’s time for our movement to show that with our actions. That does not mean that every person can or should directly participate in an open rescue. Such investigations, if done properly, take months of effort, huge time commitments, and (though far cheaper than conventional investigations) thousands of dollars. If done poorly, they can lead to serious legal consequences, wasted resources, or, worst of all, harm to animals. But even if all of us cannot do open rescue, all of us can be part of a network that rescues animals from places of violence. Like all forms of nonviolent direct action, open rescue can only be born from a powerful community.

If the result of our action is just a temporary media blip, we will have failed in our duty to the animals. Mei, Sephy, and others will have been saved. But so many others were left behind. We cannot let their stories be forgotten. And that is why, today, we announce DxE’s newest community project, the Open Rescue Network, and its four principal goals:

- To openly rescue animals from places of violence.
- To train and support others in doing the same.
- To document the violence inherent to animal slavery.
- To tell the stories of those who were saved.

Until Every Animal is Free.