Pittsburgh animal advocate gets arrested, makes headlines, in rural England

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Hurtling through the English countryside and clashing with rifle-toting men in camouflage gear last week, a North Side woman became a star player in the biggest United Kingdom animal-rights battle in a decade.

For months Rebecca Reid, 52, had been closely following plans for the government-sanctioned shootings, or "culls," of badgers in two rural English counties. The killings, proposed to keep the badgers from spreading tuberculosis in cows, were scheduled over objections from environmentalists that the effort was inhumane and ineffective.

The longtime animal-rights advocate, who moved to Pittsburgh from Liverpool 15 years ago, was moved by stories of people walking public footpaths through the countryside at all hours of the night disrupting the culls, and protecting badger dens (or "setts") from privately employed hunters. Last Monday, prodded by her children, she joined efforts in Gloucestershire, 100 miles west of London.

"It wasn't just about the badgers. It was the need to be among people so determined to stop this. I just had to go," Ms. Reid said Tuesday. "My kids said 'Just go, Mum, just go. We're so sick of hearing about it.' "

Three days later she was in a jail cell while police searched her hotel room, and making headlines for traveling thousands of miles to try to stop the shootings.

Bovine tuberculosis caused 37,000 cattle to be put down last year, according to The Guardian, causing $160 million in public payouts to cattle owners. Saying infected badgers are to blame, in late August the private National Farmers Union and the British government began a six-week cull of up to 5,000 badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset counties to test if they should be performed nationwide.

The trial culls could cut TB among cows by more than 15 percent, supporters say, while vaccines are researched.

Animal welfare groups and scientists -- including Lord Krebs, the zoologist and president of the British Science Association -- have criticized the shootings, saying among other things they could disperse infected badgers even farther across the countryside. Among critics, the culls also are seen as a symptom of large-scale corporate farming that, with support from the controlling Conservative Party, has been able to avoid increased health and safety regulation.

Fights over the culls have spurred the biggest animal rights fights in the United Kingdom since fox hunting with dogs was banned in England and Wales in 2004. The white-striped badger carries special cultural baggage for the British, too -- sometimes called a "brock," it has a wistful connection to images of the pastoral English countryside, surfacing as everything from a main character in "The Wind in the Willows" to the mascot for the Hufflepuff house in the "Harry Potter" books.

Against that backdrop news, coverage and police presence in the test shooting areas has been intense the past few weeks, as Ms. Reid discovered.

Ms. Reid spent her first couple days driving tiny roads around a 10-square-mile section of Gloucestershire in a rented Volkswagen Golf looking for hunters. The protesters' strategy was to let the hunters see them, since once they were noticed they would seek different places to shoot.

Late Wednesday night into Thursday morning she and three other activists, whom she had just met, drove past an open gate and saw a parked vehicle. They got out to investigate and three large men carrying rifles and wearing camouflage and balaclavas got out, screaming that the group was trespassing.

"They said they would 'take us to the cleaners.' It was a pretty scary experience," Ms. Reid said.

Local police came to the site and arrested Ms. Reid and two others and charged them with aggravated trespassing. Detectives from the country's Criminal Investigation Department later bumped the charges up to conspiracy to attempt aggravated trespass, which she said drew them to search her hotel room and hold her computer, as well as searching a fellow suspect's home outside London.

They were the first arrests made during the culls and made newspapers nationwide. A local paper, the Gloucestershire Echo, ran an interview with Ms. Reid headlined "I flew 3,500 miles to protect your badgers."

Ms. Reid said police treated her kindly during her first-ever night in jail, even going out to buy vegan food for her and the other suspects. When police discovered they did not plan their confrontation with the hunters, the charges were dropped. Her biggest worries were getting her computer back, which she needs for her work as a freelance French translator, and flying back on time Monday to see her kids.

She said she would go back to protest the culls again, but her bigger focus is back here in the United States: She hopes interest in the badger killings would bring similar scrutiny and protests of animal control efforts by the Wildlife Services division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"It was not my goal to draw attention to myself or get arrested. For me, it's not just about going back next time, it's about encouraging others to deal with lots of similar things in the States," Ms. Reid said. "I hope it can spark things here, too. You can be empowered, not arrested, and stand up against this."

world - neigh_city - environment

Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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