Behind the Mask (2006)

“I don’t believe you can ever challenge the law without Direct Action.”

Behind the Mask, directed by Los Angeles animal rights lawyer Shannon Keith examines why some animal rights activists feel compelled to break the law and risk jail in order to liberate animals from factory farms and laboratories. The title refers to the ideas behind the acts of those who wear masks when raiding those nasty little laboratories and farms. If there’s another film out there that bothers to ask people in depth exactly why they feel so strongly about the issue of the treatment of animals, and why they break into facilities to save animals and expose the treatment meted out, I don’t know about it.

Now let’s be perfectly clear here; the Animal Liberation Front is not an organization. So you can’t write off and ask for a membership card and you can’t join. That said, the Animal Liberation Front has guidelines which are posted on the website , the website created by the makers of Behind the Mask. Labeled a terrorist group, ALF has been around now for decades, and as with all marginalized groups, they have become ‘unnewsworthy.’ The film’s tagline is: The film the government doesn’t want you to see, but I’d argue that it’s a film that corporations don’t want you to see. Although of course, government and corporations are connected in the most advantageous and powerful ways.

The film examines some of the methods used by ALF, and we see footage of raids on various labs and farms. Various animal activists (some of whom have served prison time for their actions) address issues involved in animal liberation. Some see animal liberation as the “modern day underground railroad.” Others raid labs, breaking the law, in an attempt to bring the treatment of lab animals to the attention of the public. One PETA activist describes her harrowing undercover work in a laboratory, and Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA addresses the idea that every consumer can do something by simply not purchasing products from companies who test on animals. One of the arguments that supports the testing of animals is that it is a necessary process for its contributions to human medicine. Dr. Vlasak, a trauma surgeon addresses the absurdity of the argument that animal testing contributes to human medicine (it doesn’t): “the vast majority of all animal research is never ever useful for treating human health issues.”

Interviewee Rod Coronado addresses one of the criticisms of ALF by stressing that “it’s very easy to prevent human fatalities when carrying out Direct Action.”

Given the subject matter, some of the footage is grueling. Animals die on screen in the most disgusting and appalling ways using so-called efficient methods. I’ll admit some of the footage disturbed my sleep for several nights, but I expected this when I started the film. And to be honest, I think this is one of the reasons the general public shy away from the details of what goes on in the labs and slaughter houses; we don’t want to educate ourselves about the issues because part of us knows full well that the process of exactly how that bacon ended up in the supermarket shelf, for example, is full of earth-shattering violence and disdain for the suffering of animals. Some of the footage includes scenes in slaughter houses, and some of the footage exposes the conditions that exist in the labs–along with some horrendous photos of lab animals. One scene, for example, shows a burly lab tech punching a Beagle unconscious telling the dog “you had your chance.”

The film also makes the point that the vast pharmaceutical companies use pressure to pull media ads targeting laboratory animal abuse. While the film points out that Direct Action and economic sabotage have closed several facilities (a rabbit farm, for example), the point is not made that some of those closed down are very small time operators with fairly easy access. The huge laboratories, which are as secure as Fort Knox, remain largely untouched. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of these actions just make insurance companies fatter and richer, and I loathe insurance companies.

One great interview in Behind the Mask reinforces the idea that animal liberators have become increasingly marginalized–and often painted with the same brush as terrorists when we see the lead singer of Goldfinger, John Feldmann whose house was surrounded by helicopters and a SWAT team after his wife attended an animal rights protest.

One of the arguments made in Against All Odds: Animal Liberation 1972-1986 (a brief history of the development of the Animal Liberation Movement which argues that animal liberation, herded into illegality, has moved in the wrong direction) is that marginalization is the natural result of the intense criminalization of protestors–for example in the sentencing of acts of simple trespass. By blocking legal avenues for protest, society gets what it creates–illegal actions. To quote Victor Serge “Thus we have neither to approve nor disapprove of illegal actions. We say: they are logical.”

Ultimately, animal liberation raises some complex, uncomfortable moral questions. Have acts of animal liberation brought the issue of animal exploitation in factory farming and laboratory testing to the public’s attention? Or do people just tune out at the mention of ALF? Unfortunately it’s going to be very, very difficult to create a paradigm shift against the eating of meat–although this may happen with the seeming increasing number of meat contamination cases that make the headlines and enter public consciousness. But I do think the area of laboratory testing is ripe for education. The film makes the point that laboratory testing that involves animals is an “industry that regulates itself.” Most of the ‘public’ simply don’t know what’s involved in product testing, and if they did, it’s likely that a certain percentage would boycott corporations that operate with such flagrant, disgusting and careless disregard for animal life.

In the meantime, watch Behind the Mask and inform yourself about exactly how animals are treated. One thing we can all do is stop supporting companies that test on animals by simply not buying their products. For more information on corporations that test on animals, visit


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