In the eighth part of the blog series “And If You Know Your History…”, Dr. Roger Yates of the Vegan Information Project talks about the work of animal rights activist Ronnie Lee, known primarily for being the Press Officer for the UK Animal Liberation Front (ALF) in 1976.
In 1969, Ronnie Lee’s mother, Margaret, reacted rather badly to the news that he and his sister were going vegetarian. She told them to go and eat the grass in the back yard because the lawn needed cutting. Predictably, Ronnie’s movement to veganism in 1972 went down even worse with his mother.
Interestingly, Ronnie adopted a plant diet fairly quickly, and against the advice of The Vegan Society, which he had read about in The Vegetarian Society’s magazine which had features about various campaigning groups such as the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), and the vegans. Ronnie joined them all. This was the first time that Ronnie had heard the word “vegan” and, reading about the rights violations in dairy and egg production, he says he was “rattled to the core,” quite overwhelmed by the amount of animal exploitation in the foods that vegetarians eat. He says
Once you realise that, you know you have to make a much more fundamental life change – or I felt that.
The Vegan Society article provided reasons to be vegan that resonated with Ronnie and, in terms of diet, they said it’s best to make the change gradually. Ronnie tried that for a few days – reducing the amount of cow milk (calf food) here, and not having an egg there – but he decided that was all too complicated and just went for it, announcing to his mum that he was now a vegan!
She declared that her son had “gone mad” and predicted, apparently in all seriousness, that Ronnie would be dead within a year of adopting a wholly plant-based diet. As readers of this Vegfest Express series will remember from earlier blog entries, this was precisely what the 1940s vegan movement pioneers were told. 30 years on, Margaret Lee was sufficiently worried that, ten days into his veganism, Ronnie discovered his mother cracking an egg into his food declaring that she was dedicated to keeping him alive.
After resolving this act of culinary sabotage, Ronnie went on to become actively involved with the Hunt Saboteurs, especially after seeing a TV news report showing hunters on horseback whipping the “sabs” who were trying to save a fox. “Sabbing” fox hunts may involve laying down a blanket of spray made with citronella oil, blowing horns to attract the hounds away from the huntsman, and using loud calls or screams – known as “hollahs” – to the same effect. This inevitably brings the sabs into close contact and confrontation with the hunters and the hunt’s foot and car followers. Ronnie also took part in disruptions of otter hunts, which often involved physically getting into rivers and amongst the hunters: “fisticuffs” often resulted. Ronnie would also release fishes trapped by anglers in keepnets at a time when the League Against Cruel Sports were trying to outlaw hunting with hounds. The LACS and the hunt sabs disagreed as to whether fishing was a bloodsport, even if only tactically, because the LACS believed that raising the issue of fishing “too early” was a matter of rocking the boat.
Modern day vegans need to know that the 1970s, 1980s, and even into the mid-1990s, were times before veganism was established as the moral baseline of central parts of the animal advocacy movement. In its effort to ban hunting with hounds, for example, the League Against Cruel Sports were prepared to lobby MPs over a “steak” dinner – which they would pay for. The current hunting “ban” in place in England, Wales, and Scotland was initiated by a private member’s bill by Michael Foster MP, who was known for going fishing, and had gone to court to defend a father and son charged with fishing without a licence.
When Ronnie Lee joined the Northampton hunt sabs in the 1970s, he quickly discovered that he was the only vegan in the group. Ronnie learnt that it was much the same situation in the other groups that he had joined.
These organisations which campaigned against animal experimentation, against the fur trade, and against hunting – the people that ran these organisations were meat eaters. They’d hold up a placard in one hand…eating a chicken sandwich in the other.
Even when – from the 1980s onwards – the concept of animal rights became more known in the animal movement, and to the extent that it ever was, many of the people in the larger groups became vegetarians, plant-based, or vegans – but that didn’t alter their organisational focus on single-issues and often on the reform of animal welfare regulations.
Ronnie set about veganising his sab group – and quite successfully too. However, Ronnie grew tired of traditional sabbing, and was particularly frustrated that little could be done about cub hunting when hunters would surround a small wood – known as a “covert” (silent ‘t’) – and send in novice hounds along with experienced ones to kill fox cubs and get a taste for fox flesh.*
Much better, thought Ronnie and a few select friends, to stop the hunt from even getting out of their kennels on hunting days. They co-founded the Band of Mercy (borrowing the name from “a militant youth wing of the RSPCA” in the 19th century, if readers can imagine that) which got busy letting down the tyres of hunt vehicles, removing the valves to prevent reinflation, and glueing locks. This was in 1973 and, within three years, while expanding its remit well beyond hunting, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) was born and history was made.
Both the Band of Mercy and the Animal Liberation Front had strict policies of nonviolence, declaring that no action should harm any animal, nonhuman or human. Over the years, the ALF, described as “not so much an organisation as a state of mind,” has liberated tens of thousands of other animals, and caused millions of pounds worth of damage to the “animal user industries” as animal rights philosopher and activist, Tom Regan, calls them. Eventually, however, the British State would react to this amount of direct action, estimated at up to 6 actions per night in Britain at its peak in the 1980s, and Ronnie became involved in 1986 in a show trial involving members of the ALF who took direct action, and people who represented the ALF as media contacts and press officers. By this time, Ronnie Lee was the National Press Officer of the ALFSG (Animal Liberation Front Supporters Group). He was sentenced to ten years in prison, including a time as a Category “A” prisoner, which essentially means regarded as the highest security risk in the prison system. This was Ronnie’s third time in prison – and he’s totalled 14 years in three separate prison sentences, with 9 years spent behind bars for fighting for other animals.
Ronnie Lee is a modest man and does not go out of his way to broadcast or brag about his activist past. This is in stark relief to some other self-publicists in the animal movement who have convinced many people that they are or have been the “most active of all animal activists,” despite spending a total of only 11 weeks in prison from a short sentence of six months.** Ronnie says that, nowadays, campaigners are often very surprising – sometimes shocked – when they learn about the time he spent in prison.
Looking back on his time with the ALF – and in the light of his current focus on vegan education initiatives and events – Ronnie says that he thinks there was a “war mentality” within the ALF – it was the “animal liberationists versus the animal abusers.” Significantly, he added, “the public were not involved. There was no interaction with members of the public.” In a way, the ALF press offices were supposed to bridge the gap between the public and the direct actionists. However, Ronnie says that it didn’t quite work out. He says that the press office tried to educate the general public via the mass media with a recognition that, ultimately, cultural change was necessary. However, making any point that has any educational value is hard when journalists were most interested to discuss the proposition that the ALF were a terrorist grouping, while asking what further “outrages” can be expected in the future. Ronnie says that
There was some balance through the [mass] media, but you can’t rely on the media to spread the message.
Ronnie says that the ALF spared many lives, of course, rescuing other animals from vivisection experiments and farms – but it failed in its efforts to explain the values that led to the direct action taking place.
I came out of jail thinking that it was going to be difficult for me to be involved in direct action…It was at this stage I started thinking about going out on the streets and doing stalls to educate people. This was difficult for me at first, because I have never previously had very much involvement with the ordinary public, but I gained confidence by helping people who were already doing street stalls, so that eventually I was able to organise and do them myself.
On this point, Ronnie agrees with the general plea often made within the vegan community – we need more vegans to be active campaigners. However, he says, it is also important that the movement gains more organisers within the activist community. Going to events set up by others is one thing – it’s a different thing to start something of your own.
It’s vitally important that we educate people to go vegan and, of course, the only people that can educate people to go vegan are vegans themselves and sadly, relatively few vegans are actively involved in outreach. I all the time try to encourage vegans to “get out there” and educate people.
Ronnie believes that street stalls need to “look good;” that is, be attractive and welcoming so that the public are not put off from approaching them. In terms of local stalls and activities, he says that the media can play a role here, especially local media. It is important to check out and explore community media too.
Unless we get a large number of ordinary people rejecting speciesism – rejecting human supremacism – and going vegan, we’re not going to achieve animal liberation.
Ronnie is a great fan of local vegan fairs and he says that these can be relatively small as well as very beneficial to the vegan cause. Complimentary to the large national and regional events of this type, local vegan fairs are best when they attract a large number of non-vegans, he argues. Again, this makes public education a key factor. Rather than restricting advertising within a vegan “bubble” on social media, for example, Ronnie thinks that the systematic “door-dropping” of leaflets advertising local fairs is absolutely crucial. Ronnie has taken part and organised many “door drops” in which housing estates and roads surrounding the fair’s location are targeted in an organised fashion, so that every home gets a leaflet. Postering local shops is important too.
Such leafleting reaches people who cannot be reached via social media alone, and Ronnie points out that these events are not best if vegans simply end up talking to one another – we need the non-vegan public there in order to be exposed to plant-based foods and vegan arguments. To this end, Ronnie states that it is important to keep the cost of entry to these local vegan fairs as low as possible. With low entry fees, local venues, and frequent events, non-vegans will come, he says.
Ronnie believes that animal liberationists need to make meaningful contact and alliances with other groups who may share vegan values, or are at least open to them. To that end, he has worked with his local Green Party, taking a lead role in their animal-policy group which came up with plans to bring about the abolition of greyhound racing (a long time concern). He’s helped Friends of the Earth with a bee protection campaign, as well as encouraging the setting up of many local animal groups. In 2012, Ronnie designed all the literature for that year’s World Day for Laboratory Animals march. He’s also been a regular speaker at such events. Nowadays, these tend to draw something like 300-700 demonstrators, whereas Ronnie and his wife and fellow activist, Louise Ryan, remember times when 10,000 and even 20,000 people attended.
Ronnie’s message – acknowledging that compromises have to be made along the way – is that the animal advocacy movement will not get very far if it remains too isolated and distant from other radical social movements.
There is the widespread isolation of the animal liberation movement from other movements for radical and progressive change, whom we need to make alliances with if ever we are to create a decent world for all its inhabitants, both human and non-human alike. This form of isolationism is very eloquently challenged by Dr. Steve Best in his excellent Total Liberation talk.
This is the talk that Ronnie refers to…
* This is one of the reasons hunters refer to hounds as pairs – or couples. They may employ a special collar in which a novice hound would be literally tied to an experience one who would drag the novice about until he or she got the picture. Hunters would take this convention of regarding hounds as couples as far as calling, for example, 41 hounds, “twenty and a half couple.”
** and 65 hours of community service. M.i.l.i.t.a.n.t!
Ronnie Lee Talks About His Biography https://ohnhrpodcasts.blogspot.com/2017/10/ohnhr-podcast-39-ronnie-lee-talks-about.html
The Animals’ Freedom Fighter: A Biography of Ronnie Lee, Founder of the Animal Liberation Front. Jon Hochschartner (2017) A digital copy of the book is available to download here – http://tinyurl.com/RonnieBioPDF
“Ronnie Lee: Vegan-Based Campaigning is NEW!” On Human Relations with Other Sentient Beings (2015) – https://onhumanrelationswithothersentientbeings.weebly.com/the-blog/ronnie-lee-vegan-based-campaigning-is-new
Animal Warfare: The Story of the Animal Liberation Front. David Henshaw (1989).
Animal Century: A Celebration of Changing Attitudes to Animals. Mark Gold (1998).
Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals. (eds.) Steve Best & Anthony Nocella II (2004).
Returning to Olympia London for the 7th year running on the weekend October 26-27, this eagerly anticipated event includes 320 stalls packed with the latest vegan products, a Vegan Food Village with 25 caterers, a New Vegans Support area for beginners to veganism, a Foodies Stage with live music, the Art of Compassion Project Exhibition, the Vivo Life Fitness area, the Strength & Endurance area, a Holistic Health Hub, Cookery Demos, talks on Plant Based Health, a Natural Therapy Zone, Lifestyle presentations, a Yoga Zone, a Kids Yoga area, talks on Veganic Growing, a Mature Zone, a Kids Area, plus talks on Animal Rights and Activism, the Vegan Activists Support, the VGN News Room, the VGN Climate Summit and the Animal Rebellion summit.
Advance tickets for this event are now available at www.london.vegfest.co.uk/tickets.
Each entry ticket includes further access to all talks, cookery demos, panels and live music sessions at the show.
The organisers of VegfestUK are running a new show Plant Powered Expo next February in the National Hall of Olympia London. This new event celebrates the best of a plant-based way of life with 235 stalls, 12 features and 100 speakers. For more information, visit www.plantpoweredexpo.co.uk