There’s a whole bunch of content packed into the emotionally-charged 90-minute runtime of The Animal People. The documentary from directors Casey Suchan and Denis Henry Hennelly and executive producer Joaquin Phoenix tells the story of a group of animal rights activists who tried to take down an animal testing laboratory only to end up the target of one of the largest FBI investigations in history.
From beginning to end, The Animal People is a bold look into the roots of a radical movement that proved as controversial as it was daring.
In the late-1990s and early 2000s, student animal rights activist Kevin Kjonaas and a group of friends formed Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a grassroots movement devoted to shutting down Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), an animal testing laboratory repeatedly exposed for the abuse and neglect of its test subjects.
Their anger fueled by barbaric undercover videos recovered from the lab, this small group of activists turned to a new(ish) invention called the internet to inform and recruit. And, it worked. Across the country, crowds of new SHAC members crammed onto the front lawns of financial and investment executives funding HLS. Placards waving, bullhorns blaring, they shouted abuse and threw balloons filled with paint.
The United States responded with a ruthless campaign that conflated the legal actions of SHAC with the illegal tactics of groups like the Animal Liberation Front that break into animal testing labs, vanadlize them, and steal the animals. They labeled SHAC as terrorists. They stuck Kjonaas on the FBI’s Most Wanted List at a time when Osama bin Laden was up there, too. Legislative sessions were held. Laws were changed. All to stop a bunch of hippies from showing up on the front lawn of HLS executives.
The triumph of The Animal People is its ability to make audiences feel the seething rage of its central characters even as they transform from passionate protestors to federal suspects. The segments of animal abuse recovered from HLS take up only a scant few moments of screen time, but they are more than enough to build a bridge between any animal lover and the six activists at the center of the movie.
These aren’t crazy people, they’re just pissed off, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Aggressive as SHAC’s tactics might be, watching the federal government crash down around a cause designed to prevent the torture and murder of some beagles is silly and scary in equal measure. The Animal People isn’t always easy to watch, but it should be required viewing for anyone who’s given their heart to a four-legged buddy. And it may just change your mind about direct activism and the people brave enough to take up the mantle.
The Animal People is now streaming.