A Critique of Open Rescues

What is Open Rescue?

Open rescue, a tactic devised by Australian Patty Mark in the 1990s, has been witnessing a resurgence in 21st century anti-speciesism work. Direct Action Everywhere (DXE), for instance, regularly employs this tactic alongside its other direct action tactics (including disruptions both outside and inside supermarkets and restaurants). DXE has offered a number of reasons why open rescue is particulary powerful:

[It] Provid[es] a window into the world of animal abuse [which] is Reason #1 for open investigation and rescue. [ . . . ]

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

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

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

Although there is some validity to these points, there are some potential negative (or counterproductive) consequences that should be considered.

Do Moral Shocks Work?

To the first point, the utility of morally shocking imagery is highly contested (readers can learn more in my 2013 publication with Society & Animals). DXE is correct here to focus on “abuse” and not “use”: those viewing this imagery are likely to interpret it within the mental schema of welfare reform. Decades of societal emphasis on improving welfare for other animals rather than abolishing their use altogether has conditioned the public to react to graphic images of Nonhuman Animal suffering with a desire to reform and donate. There is much less encouragement for them to go vegan or support liberation. Open rescue has traditionally existed in the repertoire of professionalized organizations, which, alongside speciesist industries, have socialized consumers to respond to upsetting information or imagery by purchasing more “humane” speciesist products. There is no reason to believe that DXE’s work will be interpreted any differently.

Undercover Footage for Consumers or Funders?

To the second point: just how much more open-rescue footage do we need exactly? Dozens of organizations have been obtaining similar footage since the 1970s. While DXE claims its undercover footage is “groundbreaking,” many other large non-profits also target “humane” agricultural facilities. We have the information; we have the images. I suspect that the true reason for continuing these rescues is to maintain the treadmill of activity and evidence of impact for grant proposals. Open rescues actually save very few individuals, and those who are saved will be replaced immediately. However, rescue efforts make for a good story on websites and grant proposals. Vegan education efforts, by contrast, do not make for glamorous or exciting photo opportunities. Furthermore, vegan education is also aimed at seriously challenging systems of oppression. These may be off-putting to potential funders, many of which directly or indirectly benefit from specieist industries.

Open rescues, although exciting and heroic, unfortunately maintain the system as it is. This tactic therefore protects the interests of conservative foundations that maintain most grant monies. Open rescues give non-profits something to write about and fund-raise behind. DXE may pride itself in resisting the heavy reliance on funding that characterize other non-profits, but the donation rhetoric that it does engage reads similarly to that of the larger non-profits.1 For that matter, its logo is plastered on its outreach materials, posters, signs, and volunteer t-shirts for a reason. This rescue work is not 100% about Nonhuman Animal liberation. It is also, to some extent, about advertising the organizational brand. The social movement arena is a competitive world. To survive and thrive, a group needs to raise resources. To do so, it has to start prioritizing single-issue campaigns, shocking imagery, brand promotion, and yes, fundraising.

It also needs full-time employees to run the organization and more funding to pay them to do so. Like other professionalized organizations, DXE maintains the pro-capitalist position that some privileged individuals will be paid to advocate.2 Funding careerists can be problematic because it supposes that the revolution can be “bought.” However, not everyone can access the privilege of non-profit employment; the non-profit system is known to reproduce social inequality by under-representing oppressed groups on the payroll.3 Furthermore, it is capitalism that has created this oppression. What reason is there to believe that capitalism, a system which requires inequality and competition to function, will end oppression? Dismantling oppression will require the efforts of millions of individuals, and it is not plausible for them to expect a paycheck or stipend. The notion that activists can work against the forces of capitalism while simultaneously earning an income from it is nonsensical and it is also privileged. This is advocacy as industry.

Empowering Activists and Consumers or Empowering Speciesism?

DXE’s third point, that open rescue is a “powerful statement,” also exhibits the aforementioned issue with counterproductive audience interpretations. But I also question what type of power is being stated. Open rescues, in spotlighting Nonhuman Animal suffering and vulnerability, may also reinforce the tendency for consumers to distance themselves from speciesism or even reinforce attitudes of social domination. Ironically, DXE has acknowledged this very possibility in previous communique. Kelly Atlas writes:

Horrific, graphic images can trigger defense mechanisms that make people shy away from the scene, thereby discouraging engagement with the liberationist message and political activity. [ . . . ] 

I am also concerned that repeatedly seeing images of people of a given group (nonhumans) being objectified by one’s own group (humans) may normalize their objectification in the viewer’s mind.

Indeed, in an essay for Vegan Feminist Network, I have likened this use of imagery to the mechanisms of pornography. It seeks to elicit a physiological reaction by presenting images of degraded and objectified bodies to the privileged human gaze:

The entire point of pornography is to titillate via the sexual degradation and humiliation of an oppressed body.  Those who consume pornography are consuming it specifically to “get off,” so to speak, on the demonstrated powerlessness of otherized bodies.  The relationship between the viewer and the viewee is one that reproduces and reinforces a hierarchy of domination.  Pornography users also report experiencing a “tolerance,” meaning increasingly degrading and shocking imagery is needed for them to feel something.  The pornography industry is happy to serve that need by producing increasingly disturbing media. [ . . . ] 

So what makes it any different for vegan advocates who share these images with the intention of shocking people with images of violated and degraded animal bodies?  And for that matter, what gives them the right?  

Indeed, the power relationship behind the production and reproduction of these images must be considered. As shareable content, their intended purpose is to create a shocking response, even if that intention is in good will. Unfortunately, this can reinforce the privileged status of the viewer and the objectification of the image’s subject matter.

Finally, DXE seems to conflate open rescue with emotionally-charged imagery. These are separate tactics. Open rescue is only one of many ways to use imagery to inspire social change. However, DXE suggests that, without open rescue, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement lacks arsenal. If open rescue is to be conceptualized as arsenal, it must surely be that of a double-edged sword. It works to elicit a physiological response that will encourage the “Do something, anything! Less talk, more action! Donate now! Reform it!” type of mentality. This muddled and anxious energy can more easily be steered down profesionalized pathways that perpetuate the non-profit system. It is less likely to be guided toward veganism and system change.

1. From the DXE donation page (as of January 9th, 2015): “Yes, we could use funding. Materials, cameras, and technology aren’t cheap. Our groundbreaking investigations of ‘certified humane’  farms cost a tiny fraction of what is spent in comparable investigations by large non-profits, but expenses still often run into the thousands of dollars.”
2. From the DXE donation page (as of January 9th 2015):  “And a small number of DxE Fellows and Investigators have given up their careers to work for animals; we hope to support them with activist stipends.”
3. I do not know the data for DXE, which is actively more racially inclusive, but the Nonhuman Animal rights industry as a whole tends to reserve paid positions for white men of means.

A version of this essay was originally published on January 9th, 2015.

Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website,

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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