Shannon Keith Interview
6 March 2010
Shannon Keith is an accomplished and dedicated animal rights activist, and animal rights lawyer. Animals are considered property, and she has striven to change that fact while defending animal rights activists in the courtroom, saving dogs condemned to death in Los Angeles, as well as prosecuting those who abuse animals. Shannon has represented a number of well-known animal-rights activists and campaigns, including Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) and Kevin Kjonaas the former president of SHAC USA, against Huntingdon Life Sciences, and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Shannon is in the middle of promoting her newly released ‘Skin Trade’ and has generously offered her time to ARZone so that our members may benefit from her vast knowledge and experience in both Animal Rights Law and the Entertainment Industry.
ARZone: Hi, Shannon. I was wondering if you could tell me how large the demand is in the US for Animal Rights Attorneys. Is the demand becoming larger as more people become aware of the commodification of nonhuman animals, and can you give some examples of the type of case you might take on?
Shannon Keith: The demand for animal rights attorneys is enormous. People don’t realize it, but so many animals are needlessly killed and activists unjustly imprisoned because there aren’t enough of us out there.
I cannot tell you how many times I have met people who say they wished they would have known about me because their dog was killed by animal control after a dangerous dog hearing. The demand is becoming larger. More people are becoming aware of the plight of animals, which means people want to do more. That means more activists, which in turn, and sadly, means more attorneys are needed to defend them from a corrupt court systemI handle an extremely wide variety of cases ranging from administrative to civil to criminal. For example, I defend animals in the City ofLos Angeles andCounty ofLos Angeles from being killed, I also sue people, companies and organizations that kill, exploit and abuse animals, and I defend animal rights activists in criminal court. A good example would be when I defended Kevin Kjonaas (SHAC prisoner) in a civil case. He was being sued by Huntingdon Life Sciences and one of their employees.
So, I defended him civilly and the case was quite successful.
In Behind the Mask, activists defended the use of arson saying e.g. that they were able to clear buildings of all animals. Since this is clearly untrue, as every building is home to countless very small animals, e.g. insects, who could not be evacuated to safety and who would therefore be killed, did you ever buy into the idea that arson could be safe in the first place, and did you think twice about including that scene?
I definitely struggled with even including arson in “Behind the Mask.” Of course, my objective was to get the mainstream public to understand why people take direct action via illegal means to save animals and bring animal exploitation awareness to the public, and I did not want to hinder that goal by including arson as one of the means used to obtain that objective. However, I could not exclude it for that reason, Since arson IS employed, I had to be true to what actions do occur, as this is a, And, because it is a documentary, it does not necessarily mean I agree or disagree with the content; but I had to have it in there as an honest portrayal of the ALF.
This question addresses you in your legal capacity, but is also in relation to your artistic work and a/r activism: In addition to the draconian provisions contained in the U.S. ‘Animal Enterprises Terrorism Act’ (A.E.T.A), there is a state bill pending (SB 6566), with sweeping provisions that specifically target so-called ‘animal rights and eco-terrorist organizations’ and individuals – not only for acts of civil disobedience, but for any activity that even partially promotes or publicizes support of animal liberation causes. organizations’ and individuals – not only for acts of civil disobedience, but for any activity that even partially promotes or publicizes support of animal liberation causes.
In effect, along with the A.E.T.A., this suspends the First Amendment Right to Free Speech. Conversely, the Supreme Court is currently considering reversing extant legislation that prohibits the depiction of animal snuff or ‘crush’ films – on the grounds that it is a violation of the First Amendment to Free Speech! In both instances, the Right to Free Speech has been called into question vis-a-vis animal rights. How can a/r activists effectively seek to abolish or amend the A.E.T.A. (and similar legislation), whilst also demanding that the law be upheld in the case of animal cruelty ‘crush’ videos?
Wow, EXCELLENT question! I have definitely thought about this much myself since the recent crush decision. Free speech means that we have to tolerate speech that we do not condone as well.
Therefore, because I believe that I should be able to legally say that I
support illegal activity to help animals, I also have to accept that it is then
okay for groups such as the KKK to have protests against minorities. However, there is a big difference between speech and action. The Supreme Court really needs to be careful with this line and tread extremely carefully. For now, I CAN say “I support the ALF.” But I cannot say urge imminent lawless action, meaning, for example, if I were standing in front of a room of people, I could not tell everyone to kill someone else who was in that room immediately and have weapons available to them to carry out the act. That violated free speech at that point. I see this as similar to crush videos. It is not an element of free speech to break the law, i.e. torture and kill animals. It would be one thing for an advocate of crush videos to say, ‘I like killing little little animals,” and it is quite another to do it. Just like saying “I support the
ALF” is very different than participating in that action– that action is
obviously not protected speech. I hope the Supreme Court sees this very
Can you please share with us the 3 most difficult types of resistance you have encountered making movies?
1. People being unwilling to share footage
2. The opposition being unwilling to communicate.
3. The mass media being too scared to show the films I will address each one
When I first started with Behind the Mask, I approached many activists and others for footage that I could use. I would say a majority of people said they would not spend the time making copies for me because they had encountered too many people who said they were making films and never did.
This was so frustrating, as I knew I would complete BTM, but I also understood their hesitance, as all of our time is so valuable. However, even with Skin Trade, I encountered much the same, even though at this point, everyone knew about BTM. Seems many were hesitant to spend
time helping, which was quite disappointing, however, it also forced me to get a lot of my own footage, which was quite challenging but also rewarding. 2. I
have always tried to get the opposition on camera so that I can prove to the
mainstream that I at least attempted to get all sides of the issue. I tried
many ways to do this, but to no avail. It is painfully obvious that the
opposition know what they are doing is wrong, which is therefore why they
refuse to talk with me. 3. BTM was very successful in the mainstream film
festival circuit but when it came to getting distribution on cable or t.v. it
was very difficult. Some people here in Los Angeles with great connections
assisted in getting me very good agents, but channels like Animal Planet, etc.,
all thought it was too controversial. I am hoping for a different result with
There has been criticism of the amount of sexism within the animal advocacy movement. Your poster for Skin Trade seems to add to it -IF you had to use a nude, why not a male one?
I wasn’t aware of this sexism in the animal advocacy movement, however, if I may be so bold, women’s bodies are just so much nicer then men’s!
Sorry, my opinion. I believe more people enjoy the poster as it stands than if I had a male bottom and back! I also chose to go the route I did because it is slightly controversial and would attract attention. People would be drawn to the film because of it, and then, of course, get a schooling on fur. It was really more of a tactical decision than an aesthetic one.
You are not a feminist, Shannon?
It depends on your definition of feminist.
If you believe as I do, that feminisim is making a strong choice and going for it, then yes, I am, and the woman who chose to do that poster had every choice in the world. In fact, she volunteered her time for the cause.
Shannon, could you please elaborate on how you personally dealt with some of the information, vision and apathy you must have encountered during filming and editing of ‘Skin Trade’, and how, if at all, that still affects you today. In particular, when you see people wearing the skin of dead animals?
It was quite difficult filming this one fur “designer” named Chie Imai and also attending her “fashion” show and party, pretending to be interested and okay with all of it.
While I knew that some people still really had no idea about how animals are killed for fur, I had no idea of the extent of it! People flaunting fur like it is the most fabulous thing in the world.
The fur “designer” honestly believed her animals were killed “humanely”, notthat there is a humane killing, and that her products sustained “green” living!
This whole commentary is featured in Skin Trade. In filming the retailers, I
could not believe the lies they told us while we pretended to purchase a fur
coat. There were times while editing that I had to walk away for a few hours;
it was all so hard to take, watching scene after scene and deciding what to
use. My editor had his moments as well, and it always came down to we have to stick it through for that beautiful animal we are looking at on the screen whose life was brutally taken away. I am definitely even more sensitive to the issue now. I didn’t think I could be more sensitive, but I am.
How do you go about funding for your documentaries and what was the hardest setback as a documentary filmmaker in your career?
I have a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization called ARME (Animal Rescue, Media & Education) – www.arme.tv, that produces the documentaries. People donate to them through ARME, so it’s all charitable. The hardest setback as a documentary filmmaker was when I was making Behind the Mask. It was before I formed ARME, and I had spent all my savings to make the movie. I had no idea what it cost to make a documentary, and quickly learned! I was about halfway through when money ran out and I was struggling to make ends meet, and especially find time for my career as an animal lawyer. The movie had taken over my life, and that is when I realized I could start ARME to assist with all of this.
One of the paramount issues in the animal rights movement today is the legal status of animals as ‘property’. Nowhere is that more contentious at the
moment than in the U.S. State of Wisconson, where a Senate bill (SB580) on declassifying animals as property is being hotly contested. One of the rationales for dissent is that the bill flies in the face of a Wisconson citizen’s constitutional rights, for example, to equal protection, vis-a-vis the loss of the right to due process in cases of animal seizure, when for reasonable suspicion or allegations of cruelty that are not yet proven in law.
In your view, what are some of the ways the state can reconcile the incorporation of animal rights with the upholding of citizens’ rights as they are defined in the statutes, particularly when the latter are so fundamental to national identity?
If I am understanding this correctly, the Bill seeks to give animals rights beyond property, but citizens are concerned that it will take away equal rights if this occurs? I really don’t see a conflict at all between the two. I deal with consitutional issues all the time, especially my client’s right to due process as it applies to animal seizures in criminal and administrative cases. A person’s due process is not going to be reduced or elminated just because animals are given rights beyond “property.”
In your first documentary, ‘Behind the Mask’ a lot of the people who were interviewed had lost either a loved one or their freedom. I didn’t detect a lot of bitterness from the majority of these people, which I find interesting. Do you have an explanation for their attitude and continuing determination?
Who are you referring to?
Oh yes, sorry, that would be Jill Phipps who was killed.Yes, her mother is Nancy Phipps.
I was so taken a back when I met Nancy Phipps.
She was like an angel to me. She had trouble talking about her daughter, as it brought up obvious severe emotions, but wow, she has just kept right on advocating for animals despite that and despite her age and health. She is out there on the front line, protesting in the streets in the rain with teenagers!
I really think that of the people I met and interviewed, they are so dedicated and so strong, that they are not about to let anything get them down and stop them from fighting for animals. Many people I spoke with are still willing to spend time in prison if it will make a difference.
You will be aware of the growing rights-based vegan movement that is emerging. Do you think it is time to put the vegan message out there to the public, presenting it as a moral imperative for our species to abolish animal use?
Yes! And I call upon all vegans to do that. One great side effect of the films that I make is that many people make the connection and go vegan without it being in their faces. For example, since BTM came out, I have received thousands of emails from people all over the world who went vegan
after watching it! And even though I have only had one showing so far of Skin
Trade, which only focuses on fur, I have already received messages from people that they can no longer eat meat. There are all different ways to get people to go vegan, and I call upon each and every one of you to find your strength and GO FOR IT!
The title Skin Trade misled me. I looked at the trailer expecting an expose of leather and fur but it seems to be only about fur. Are there sections about leather in the full film?
No. The film focuses exclusively on fur. There are sections that discuss the environmental impact of factory farms and how fur is made that brings the leather concept in. For example, tanneries that end of dumping chemicals into the water getting people sick and killing children. These tanneries are used for leather and fur, since fur contains leather. After our premiere of the movie, one woman wanted to know what she could do with her purse. She didn’t want it anymore because it was leather. Another great way to educate people without offending them. I wanted to focus primarily on fur because were I to put all the issues into one movie nobody would watch it. I would be labeled a freak by the mainstream who already feels marginalized by us. And these are the people we need to effect, so a careful line needs to be drawn.
Why do you support PETA, a group that has killed thousands of healthy animals, has given an award toTempleGrandinand supports different kinds of animal exploitation (such as gassing chickens)?
First of all, I don’t know that you (Jose, who is not present) have your facts correct.
Secondly, if it weren’t for PETA, I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you all and being involved in saving countless animals. PETA has educated more people about the plight of animal suffering than any other organization. I’m not saying that I support EVERYTHING PETA does. I don’t, just as I most likely don’t agree with every animal rights activist about our theories on liberation. The important thing is to support one another in this struggle, not continue the in-fighting. This question is disturbing to me because we are wasting time. Here I am defending why I support an animal rights organization.
What is the best way to go about stopping the gassing of our shelter animals as I feel this is a terrible abuse and I certainly agree that animals are much more than property.
This is a tough one, and an issue I have been fighting for 15 years. Not just the gassing, but the killing period. Each area has its own laws and regulations with regard to animals in pounds. I have been working with theLos Angeles shleter system to try to get them to go “No Kill.” The best way is to come up with a model that the various municipalities can work with. It would also involve the help and cooperation of resuce organizations and the public at large. Where are you located?
I would be happy to help you come up with a plan. Feel free to contact me via email, but have been crossposting for animals all over the US and have certainly learnt alot in the last few months that is so heartbreaking I would start by submitting a proposal to the city council at a meeting get support, petitions, etc. and go from there meet with the mayoronce you have all your documentation and support
Shannon, I NEED to see your latest offering ASAP. I’m in a rural part of Canada. What do you suggest..AND, I was also curious to know if you have another project in the works. If so, what sort of timeline are you looking at before your next release.
Thanks! We just completed Skin Trade and it is now available for purchase at
www.skintradethemovie.com. All proceeds go to making the next film.
Yes, there is a 3rd one already in the works and we are trying to get that done within a year, but of course we need funding for it.
That will be the only hold up.
It’s top secret but I think everyone will love it!
I just want to put out there that anyone who wants to organize a screening with BTM or SKIN TRADE should do so, and let me know. I can assist if possible or fly out and speak.
Please also spread the word about them!
BTM is here: www.uncagedfilms.com
Shannon, in BTM, at the start, the Regal Rabbit farm is shut down, what happened to the rabbits who were freed from that ‘farm’?
Keith Mann, among others, were able to go in and take the rabbits out legally.
Some of that footage is in the film.
The rabbits were given to homes and sanctuaries to live out their lives.
The farm was shut down
The farm WAS closed – the demand remains.
There is a tactical issue about such campaigns.
Shannon, I want to thank you again, you’ve been awesome, and considering your time is so limited at the moment, I am incredibly grateful to you!
Thanks for having me. I wish the best for everyone on this forum, that we can all work together for the animals’ sake. Stop arguing and get active!
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