Excerpt from Confessions of an Animal Rights Terrorist

Read an excerpt of this searing memoir of an animal rights campaigner’s effort to stop Canada’s seal hunt, while handling domestic abuse and her partner’s long-term illness.

Bombs, anyone?

November 2009

“WE WORK FOR CSIS,” the woman says, flashing her badge at me in the 24-hour Tim Hortons coffee shop. With a quick sweep of her head, she indicates the woman beside her. “We want to ask you some questions.”

CSIS! What does CSIS want with me? Are they here to arrest me? For what? CSIS, pronounced ceesis, stands for the Canadian Security Intelligence Services. It investigates terrorists. Think CIA, but polite. How did I get to this point?

It begins on a breezy, leaf-tossing day in November 2009. My office window rattles with the one-two punch of wind as the ominous grey sky sucks in any remnants of sun. Hunched over my computer, I’m filling in the cells of an Excel spreadsheet that charts the courses of the 2006 and 2007 Canadian commercial seal hunts. I’ve already been tucking the data into their own nest-like rectangular cells for three hours when the phone rings.

A woman’s voice stumbles into the receiver. “Are you the Karen Levenson who’s involved with public safety and animals?”

“Public safety”? I don’t do public safety, unless the public has four legs and a tail. Who is this woman? What does she want?

“In parks? Public safety and animals?” she says.

I lean back in my office swivel chair and sigh. It’s not that I don’t care about public safety. It’s just the things done in the name of public safety make the world less safe for animals. However, I know what she’s referring to. Four years ago, I successfully lobbied for a trapping ban in Guelph after a wildlife trap meant for raccoons strangled a Jack Russell terrier in a popular off-leash dog park.

“May I help you?”

“I was hoping to meet with you.”

“What about?”

“Errr . . . uhmmm.”

“Has an animal been caught in a trap?” I ask. Although Guelph is the only Canadian city where animals are safe from throat-crushing or leg-breaking traps, animals not living in Guelph still suffer excruciating deaths in them. Perhaps she knows about one.

“I’d rather not say any more on the phone. I’m at work.” Her voice is hushed, as if she were trying to stuff all her words into the phone receiver without spilling any of them. “Can I meet you somewhere?”

Is the woman a whistleblower? I imagine an envelope full of confidential information—I can’t fathom what about. It could be so many things: hunting . . . trapping . . . poaching . . . research . . . the seal hunt.

“Where do you work? Can I meet you nearby?”

“Toronto,” she says. “No, I’d rather come to you.”

“There’s a Tim Hortons off Stone Road,” I suggest. Tim Hortons is a Canadian coffee chain that’s as ubiquitous as the beaver on the Canadian nickel. Every town has at least one, selling fresh coffee and donuts. Guelph has nine.

We agree to meet at 3 p.m. She describes herself as tall, thin, and blond; she’ll be wearing a navy jacket. Not much to go on, but I’m sure I’ll find her.

I pull into the parking lot a few minutes before three. The wind whips my feet and blows me inside the Tim Hortons. Construction workers, retirees, and mothers with strollers block the aisles, waiting in line. I squeeze through, scanning for a tall, thin, blond woman. I locate a couple of women with light blue jackets, but no one in navy is sitting alone. I consider calling out the woman’s name but realize I don’t know it.

Close to the entrance, two females—both blond, both thin—sit at a table in identical navy jackets. They look like girls from a Catholic high school. Every thirty seconds, their eyes flit to the entrance. As I step closer, one leans forward.

“Are you Karen?”

I nod.

“I’m Andrea. And this is my colleague, Andrea.” Both women stand simultaneously.

My head jolts in surprise. Wow! What are the odds of two whistleblowers being named Andrea? The first woman offers me her hand—a grip so firm it hurts. The second offers hers, too. I squeeze it hard. They look professional, although I can’t imagine professional what. As we sit, I notice it’s not just their identical navy jackets and navy pants that make them look alike—although the first (whom I shall call Andrea One) wears her hair in a bun while the second (Andrea Two), who is taller and a little too skinny, wears hers in a ponytail. For a quick moment, I imagine the latter hunched over the toilet, with her fingers down her throat. I toss the image aside.

“You want coffee?” Andrea Two asks.

I reach for my faux-leather purse and am about to pull out my wallet when Andrea Two stands and gestures dismissively, indicating coffee is on her. She strides to the end of the ordering line with such pole-up-her-back posture and brisk efficiency that she could put them on her résumé.

Once Andrea One and I are alone, my eyes search for a file folder or an envelope bursting with telltale animal-cruelty evidence. But there’s nothing on top of or beneath the table. As I ponder where the evidence could be, Andrea One extracts something from her pocket and flashes it in my face. It’s a blue and silver badge in a protective plastic holder. Why is a whistleblower carrying a badge? I squint but the light filtering through the windows makes the words cresting the insignia hazy.

“We work for CSIS,” Andrea One says. “We want to ask you some questions.”

She slides her badge back into her pocket as Andrea Two returns with the coffees, setting mine in front of me.

“Do you know any animal rights terrorists?” Andrea One asks, raising both eyebrows.

“Do you?” Andrea Two echoes.

My eyes dart from one to the other. Are they kidding? At first, I’m flattered. Being questioned by CSIS is a rite of passage in the animal protection movement. I always thought it was glamorous (like in the movies where the big-hearted protagonist eventually prevails, earning the actress who plays her an Oscar that she waves in the air at the Academy Awards). Now I’m not so sure. Andrea One interrogates me.

“Do you know any terrorists?”

“Do you?” Andrea Two parrots.

“Do you know anyone with bombs?”

“Do you?”

“Do you know anyone who can make a bomb?”

“No. No. And no!” I say.

After fifteen minutes, I’ve had enough. I search for my purse, ready to huff with matronly defiance out the door, but I decide against it. Getting on CSIS’s bad side doesn’t seem prudent. So I refocus, just as Andrea One asks, “Do you know anyone you may not think of as a terrorist but who might break into a lab or use violence?”

Andrea Two leans forward, elbows on the table. “Do you know any terrorists who might act alone—not in your group, but maybe someone who hangs out with your group?”

The truth is I don’t. The people I work with are among the kindest I know. They don’t believe in violence (neither do I)—toward either a sealer, an animal researcher, or a slug on the side of the road. In fact, after it rains, I move snails and worms from the sidewalk and put them in the grass so they won’t get stepped on.

There are probably lots of legitimate terrorists at work in Canada who know all about timers, fuses, and incendiary devices, or how to nurture anthrax. Maybe they live in Guelph; maybe they don’t. I’m not one of them. But it becomes clear to me, after forty-five minutes under their burning glares, that the Andreas want a name, any name. If I don’t provide one, I might be spending the next twenty-four hours on a hard plastic chair at Tim Hortons.

So I give them names. “The only terrorists I know are . . .” I pause, building suspense. Now both Andreas are leaning forward.

“The only terrorists I know . . .” I repeat, before downing the rest of my coffee to give the illusion I’m struggling with my conscience. Andrea Two inches to the edge of her seat. I hope she falls off.

“Are . . .” I say, letting the word wander off for effect.

“Are . . . ?” Andrea Two urges, inclining closer, the table bisecting her stomach.

“Stephen Harper and Loyola Hearn.”

The two Andreas fall back in their seats, as if they’d been blasted by a grenade. They give each other dazed, deflated glances. Andrea One sighssss. Andrea Two SIGHSSSS. I shrug my shoulders and smile sweetly. Stephen Harper is prime minister of Canada and Loyola Hearn is his obedient Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) minister. Both are responsible for the slaughter of over a million harp seals between the years 2006 and 2008.

Andrea One wearily hands me her business card. “If you hear anything, call me.” The card is white and has her name and phone number embossed in shiny black letters. There’s no CSIS logo, or CSIS address, or even a CSIS employee title.

As I drive out of the parking lot, I wonder if the Andreas will follow me. I scan my rear-view mirror. Both are leaning against a silver two-door Acura. Andrea Two’s ankles splay and her head hangs. A fin of hair breaks free of Andrea One’s bun, masking one side of her face. She flips off her black pumps. Neither is looking in my direction, but they probably know where I live. I turn onto Stone Road and step on the gas. I ache to call Liz White, my boss at Animal Alliance of Canada, but decide against making the call from my home phone. It might be bugged. I reach for my cellphone, then think better of it. CSIS might be tapping my cellphone.

I head for the Zehrs Supermarket several blocks away, zooming past shaded single-family homes, narrow woodlots, and new housing developments. I skid to a stop in front of the supermarket, rush inside to find a pay phone—one of the last pay phones in Guelph—and insert a handful of quarters. The rotary dial is oddly comforting.

“If CSIS wants information, they can call our office,” Liz shouts into the receiver once I’ve debriefed her. “They have no right to contact you.”

I’ve never heard Liz so angry. She’s been described by Toronto’s NOW Magazine as being as warm as apple pie; she’s also been characterized by an outwitted politician as the most dangerous woman in Canada. Normally though, she resists outbursts even when confronting the worst animal abusers—not like me, who can go from calm to rankling in under two seconds. I give Liz Andrea One’s phone number, but it’s almost five o’clock. I doubt she’ll be reachable. Liz promises to call her in the morning.

It’s noon the next day when Liz telephones me about her phone confrontation with Andrea One.

“Do you know any terrorists? Do you work with any terrorists?” Andrea One asked her.

“Do NOT call our staff again,” Liz warned. “If you want to know anything, come to our office. We’ll have our lawyer present and we’ll tape the conversation.”

“So you do have terrorists working in your office,” Andrea One said.

“That’s not what I said. I said: ‘Any time you want information, you come to our office.’ Don’t you dare intimidate our staff! We’ve nothing to hide.” Then, Liz tells me, she slammed down the receiver.

Several weeks after my meeting with the Andreas at Tim Hortons, a man I have been dating ends our relationship. He says he doesn’t want to live with fur—referring to my dog, Karma, a woolly, white, shedding husky-malamute with a front-loader mouth and a penchant for putting his front paws on strangers’ shoulders. To emphasize the fact, my date picks off a strand of white fur from the shoulder of his navy jacket and holds it up for me to see. Have the Andreas gotten to him? Was he a plant all along? Has he bugged my phone? I have visions of a tiny, wireless transmitter embedded in a dust mite under my desk and of CSIS operatives huddling over a receiver in the low-rise rental apartment building across the street.

After my date has left that evening, I throw myself onto the sofa and expel a wail, transforming it into loud, heaving sobs. I want someone to love me, and Karma, and my two cats, Levi and Bella, and my Fauna Foundation rescue chimp, and the horse I haven’t rescued yet but one day will, and the seals. Could anyone love me with the seals? I cry from a place so deep I didn’t know it exists.

Then a horrible thought occurs to me. What if CSIS really is listening? I’ll never be able to show my face in espionage circles again. I have visions of CSIS agents rolling their eyes and saying, “If she’s all we have to worry about, let’s move on to those radical Mothers Against Drunk Driving.” Even if CSIS is listening, I know I must carry on. After all, if you can’t stand up for baby seals, whom can you stand up for?

To keep reading, buy the book here: https://lanternpm.org/books/confessions-of-an-animal-rights-terrorist/