Jenny McQueen is a retired provincial government employee dedicated to fighting for animals. She takes part in and organizes non-violent activism, including open rescues, disruptions, and demonstrations for Direct Action Everywhere, Animal Save Movement, Anonymous for the Voiceless, and PETA to name a few. She is also the co-founder of Animal Rights Toronto, and the founder of #ZipOffTheCruelty, a campaign against the fur trade.
Vegan for over 25 years, her activism journey began in the mid-90s in the UK with protesting circuses and providing information to the public. Attending a vegan conference in Thailand led her to meet fellow activist and Canadian Peter — who became her husband — and she moved to Canada in 2000. They live in Toronto with their fur family.
Jenny’s biggest challenge in doing this work is balancing her time and energy between the multiple areas where animal abuse occurs. Her desire to do this demonstrates just how dedicated she is to animal rights. “There are so many organizations that I would like to support and so many actions that I would like to take on currently.”
A common action is doing rescues with Direct Action Everywhere (DXE). Due to an arrest in Quebec, Jenny’s presently prevented from taking action at farms across Canada. She was charged, along with 10 others, with break and enter and their trial is scheduled for October.
Thankfully, these eleven activists have a good legal team in their corner. “We might have been able to take deals. But our lawyers are keen to take this on and we’re keen to take it on as well. It’ll be nice to have the opportunity to have a trial because then you get more exposure for animals and for the perilous, awful, awful conditions that they’re in.”
(Update: In April, Jenny was found guilty on the charges of mischief and obstruction, despite the judge commenting that the footage taken at the farm from the day of their arrests was “poignant, disturbing and impactful” and acknowledging that they were there to help the pigs, not harm them.)
Despite being prevented from actions at farms, Jenny still gets involved with teams who do rescues, for example, rescuing 22 pigs from a hoarding situation. And in February of this year, she helped organize the rescue of two Pekin ducks from a Toronto park.
Many of the actions Jenny takes get media coverage, which provides public exposure to some of the cruel industries that use animals. She feels one of the roles of activists is to create noise to shift public opinion and get lawyers and politicians involved. A lockdown action Jenny was involved in at the Chocpaw sled dog operation prompted animal rights journalist Jessica Scott-Reid to cover the industry in the Toronto Star.
Regan Russell came to Jenny’s rescue during an action at another dog sled operation. Several activists, along with documentary filmmaker Fern Levitt, were at Windrift Kennel where dogs are kept chained up their entire lives, except when they are put to work pulling sleds. As you can imagine, and as Jenny and other activists have witnessed, dogs suffer their entire lives in dogsledding operations, and they don’t really know how to be a dog.
“Fern Levitt the director of the Sled Dog movie accompanied a large group of activists, and we went to record the conditions inside Windrift Kennel, which was trespassing again. The workers came out and immediately started being violent. There was a guy trying to attack the activists with a shovel. One of our people got a bloody nose and was thrown to the ground. His camera was thrown into the wilderness. I had a female worker grab a chain that was wrapped around my neck. Instead of chaining ourselves to the sled dogs this time, we put chains around our necks, like a symbolic thing. This lady grabbed the chain around my neck, and she wouldn’t let go. I started to lose consciousness and then Regan stepped in. Everyone else was trying to get her off me through logic, but Regan stepped in and pulled the hat over her head and put some pressure on her back. The woman finally loosened her grip on the chain.”
Another high-profile action Jenny took part in was at a chicken slaughterhouse in Toronto. Trained on what to do at the Animal Liberation Conference, the activists quickly entered the slaughterhouse carrying a tub of dry cement, jugs of water, and chains and pipes. Four activists put their arms through the pipes and chained themselves to them — Jenny being one — and other activists set to work adding the water to the dry cement.
“There was no way to move us, and we were there for six hours. We shut down the slaughterhouse. We had another team rescuing four chickens, and another team taking the chickens to a sanctuary. The police came and eventually after six hours, with negotiation, we weren’t arrested.”
Speaking about this form of protest, Jenny adds, “They’d have to destroy the cement and that would be pretty near impossible. It’s a really good bargaining tool when you’re in a lockdown. And the fact that there are four people means that we can’t easily be lifted and taken away. It’s a very effective method.”
Does Jenny ever feel in danger during some of these actions? “I’ve experienced violence from workers in the past. I was part of a lockdown, the slaughterhouse seven we called it, at the cow slaughterhouse back in 2014 and we refused to get up. It blocked the slaughterhouse trucks coming in. In the end, all the tactics trying to drag us away were bruising. And some injuries occurred when the police dragged us away too. We were all arrested at that point. You can certainly experience violence as an activist.”
That has been the experience for many activists, and Regan Russell losing her life while bearing witness to pigs last year is the ultimate act of violence. Jenny believes that this tragedy has incited people to become active. “It’s put a fire in people’s hearts to carry on in her name and a lot of people became activists upon hearing of her death. Her memory is inspiring a lot of people.”
Jenny has also experienced what she terms “major occurrences” in her work as an activist. For example, there was a police raid at 6:00 a.m. when she was dragged out of her house, cuffed, then the house was searched. This was due to a pig rescue mission near Lucan, Ontario, an arrest she went to trial for; charges were eventually dropped.
“It’s jarring, that type of thing, the responses sometimes from the authorities. But you just carry on in whatever way you can. At that time, I had a restriction that I couldn’t travel outside of Ontario. We have great lawyers as well who represent animal rights activists. We’re generally safe in their hands.”
Jenny has been arrested seven times — once in the UK for a Canada Goose disruption and the remainder in Canada. The action called the Slaughterhouse Seven, where they blocked trucks at St. Helen’s cow slaughterhouse, and the pig rescue which resulted in the police raid, were the two instances where the charges went to trial, the latter in London, Ontario.
“If I can help by creating dramatic grassroots actions, or even by getting arrested for civil disobedience, the hope is that it could further the cause of animals in a positive way.”
Despite the arrests, she does not have a criminal record because charges were dropped. She’s paid fines and been made to do community service hours with the nonprofits she supports, something that is not a punishment for this activist.
Things have changed in the 25 or so years since Jenny began her activism journey, and the biggest help for the animal rights movement has come from social media.
“When I first started, I would get a letter in the mail with instructions for the demonstration. It’s changed significantly. Now with social media, you create your event and you send your invites. It’s like, build it and they will come. You have a worldwide reach. You receive messages of support from around the world and you can support other people so that is enormous.”
Jenny does something every day to advance the movement — working on organizing the next action from home, or something as simple as handing out a card with information. She’s proactive with this latter form of activism, having business-sized cards printed inexpensively at Vistaprint. They contain documentaries to watch, a list of organizations fighting for animals, a website to take the vegan challenge and information about the fur trade. Jenny suggests this is a form of activism anyone can do.
Volunteering with an animal rights organization is something that doesn’t necessarily have to involve street-level activism. Many organizations rely on volunteers for things like website, social media, content creation and design help. Supporting and visiting animal sanctuaries is another great way to get involved.
Jenny adds, “You can hold a sign outside a supermarket. You can order literature from some of the main organizations.” Even if a person wants to bear witness, they don’t need to approach the trucks, they can simply hold a sign and be in community with the other activists. Every effort matters.
“Start gently and know your limits. Whatever it is you feel comfortable with — everyone has their own style and experience. You might like making art. You might want to write a blog, you might want to send letters to the editor,” she advises.
For others, Jenny suggests that they may find it empowering to be given a megaphone and speak to the crowds. “You might find your voice on a megaphone; you just don’t know until you try it.“
For those who want to be fully involved, Jenny adds, “If you have the opportunity to bear witness and to see the animals, nothing beats seeing an animal face to face. It has no comparison. I’ve seen mother pigs in gestation crates, you’re face to face and you’re apologizing to her because you can’t save her. Nothing beats that because all your senses are assaulted with smells, sights, sounds — nothing beats being face to face.”
Jenny is a coordinator with DXE Toronto, a core member of Fur Free Toronto, a local organizer for PETA, and an organizer of National Animal Rights Day, an event held on the first Sunday in June each year.
“The National Animal Rights Day is what got me involved with open rescues, because National Animal Rights Day is where we hold deceased animals in a very respectful way, almost like a memorial. We’ve held that over the years in Toronto and had an interesting time with the police trying to shut us down and city council not giving us any space until fairly recently.”
As Jenny explains, DXE’s actions centre around “disrupting the normalization of animal violence, the way society views animals. A lot of the DXE action is disrupting places where animal use is considered normal, like running into the Royal Ag fair in Toronto with a banner and disrupting slaughterhouses. Direct Action Everywhere is dear to my heart.” She adds that she is buoyed by their mission: We will achieve revolutionary social and political change for animals in one generation.
Despite the arrests, the trials, the physical trauma, and most especially witnessing animals in horrific conditions, Jenny continues to do the hard work. “I think what keeps me going is the fact that we need to keep active. I think all of us would prefer just to be in the countryside enjoying the scenery. But when you know all the horrors that are happening to animals, that keeps you going, knowing that you can make a small change, that you can spread awareness, and you can support other people.”