Saving the animals one step at a time

Posted Sunday, February 29, 2004

Long before Steve Hindi became known as an animal protector, he was known as an animal killer.

He had the ultimate fish tale: He caught a 71/2-foot-long, 230-pound Mako shark.

His story spread quickly, courtesy of a write-up in the New York Daily News.

He caught it in a boat smaller than the fish itself, wrestling his way to fame off the coast of Long Island during five trying hours in 1985.

But the attention he received from that one fight would be nothing in comparison to the hundreds of press accounts that would focus on Hindi in the years to come.

Those closely involved in the polarizing animal rights debate disagree on everything about Hindi - from whether his tactics are effective to whether his statistics are accurate.

But no matter what they think of Hindi, they can't help but think of him because he keeps popping up.

It's an odd list of activities for a man who once grabbed headlines by bringing a shark close enough to his bass boat to shoot it in the head with a .357-caliber Magnum.

Who would spend weeks in the McHenry County jail after flying an ultralight aircraft into a flock of hunted geese.

Who's hated by bullfight and rodeo organizers the world over and even helped get Pepsi to withdraw its sponsorship of bullfights.

Who helped bring an end to bloody pigeon turkey shoots, where the animals were used as little more than paper targets.

Who helped change how Cook and DuPage counties trap and slaughter deer.

Who shifted the attention of larger groups to the toothless agreements designed to stop the killing of cats and dogs for food in Korea.

Who now has his sights set on stopping Cavel International from building the third horse-slaughtering plant in the nation, right in his back yard in DeKalb.

What's most noteworthy about his fight, other than where it started, is how he's done it.

While many animal rights groups rely on traditionally influential techniques - most notably finding strength in numbers - Hindi's fight has mirrored his "Old Man in the Sea" tale.

A lone man in a small boat, he fights desperately against a force far stronger than himself. His usual method of attack takes him around the country to covertly shoot video of animal abuses and then broadcast those videos on a specially equipped truck that now has 100-inch screens.

That struggle has taken its toll, most noticeably by breaking up his marriage.

When asked about his fight with the shark 18 years ago, Hindi pauses for a second and calls his efforts "misguided."

There's a lot of people who would have preferred his energies stayed that way.

"I used to hunt and fish," Hindi said. "I enjoyed the chase. I enjoyed the challenge. Now this is my hunting. Instead of hunting defenseless animals with overpowering weaponry, we hunt with our video cameras."

Horse slaughter

Right now, Steve Hindi has his energies trained on Cavel International, the horse-slaughter plant that burned down in DeKalb two years ago.

The Belgian-based company's plans to rebuild have been the subject of intense controversy, as the plant itself has been since its opening in the 1980s. Hindi is just one voice among many, but with his images, his opinion is one of the most graphic.

Until it burned, Cavel was one of three such facilities in the country that slaughtered horses for human consumption, the other two being in Texas.

While not legal for consumption in the United States, horse meat has a market in Europe and Canada. And horse meat does find its way into pet food in a process that comes through rendering the carcasses of dead horses.

On a sleek-looking iMac in his Elburn home, Hindi replays covert footage of a horse-slaughter plant that an associate shot in Texas.

The horse stands half-obscured by a metal sheet as a worker comes at it with a bolt gun. The gun, the same device used to render cows unconscious, should drop him with one hit.

But horses are not cows. Their longer necks and different skull shapes prove difficult. They dodge the gun. Little pieces of skull get driven into the brain, eventually knocking the horse out so it can be hung by its back legs and its throat slit.

"They are very intelligent, very aware animals," Hindi said. "They can feel death. They can smell blood."

Though graphic, the video doesn't seem to faze Hindi. Over the coming months, he will see this hundreds of times.

While many animal rights groups use their voices as their weapon, Hindi uses technology, specifically video.

He's traveled to Springfield to show this video on the 100-inch screens in front of the statehouse.

He'll continue to show it to anyone who will watch. His group, Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, or SHARK, is a small one, a dozen people at most, but members get a reaction by bringing these harrowing images of a flailing, dying horse to the public.

"When we take a position on something, we're serious about it," Hindi said.

Those methods have distinguished Hindi and SHARK from almost the entire world of animal rights groups, according to Merritt Clifton, editor of the Clinton, Wash.-based animal welfare newspaper Animal People. They have shown the power that technology can have in such a fight.

But many - even some within the animal rights community - just plain disagree with both Hindi's targets and his methods.

Donna Ewing, founder and president of the Barrington-based Hooved Animal Rescue and Protection Society, and Hindi have had a longstanding feud.

She said horse slaughter actually helps horses avoid dying slowly while their owners neglect them and that the images Hindi shows are taken out of context.

She also agrees with many rodeo groups that the traditions of the sport do not actually hurt the animals and that it's even necessary for society that people learn how to lasso animals.

"(Hindi's method's have) raised an awareness that people should clean up their acts," Ewing said. "But I think they've gone too far and I disagree with using emotionalism and taking things out of context to get their point across."

One method Hindi doesn't use is violence. When contacted, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association spokeswoman Leslie King declined to comment on him as an individual but said he was an "animal activist," many of whom are considered domestic terrorists by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Rumors continue to swirl on the Internet about the still-unexplained Easter 2002 fire that burned Cavel to the ground. Investigating agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, suspected arson but eventually said any evidence was too damaged by the blaze to be conclusive.

In 1997, a Cavel plant in Redmond, Ore., was destroyed in a blaze for which a group claimed responsibility.

But Hindi insists that using violence is just as bad as abusing animals, a much different view than some animal rights groups, like the Animal Liberation Front.

"The biggest lie told by a component of our side is that we have the right to use violence because they use violence," Hindi said.

A radical life change

"From my perspective, I think Steve Hindi has out-achieved any other person in the cause," Animal People editor Clifton said.

Clifton fielded Hindi's first phone call and has seen him through the transformation from animal killer to activist.

In 1990, Hindi called the now-defunct publication Animals Agenda and said he was a hunter but wanted to save the sport by doing away with unsportsmanlike practices - specifically the Hegins, Pa., pigeon shoot.

It was there the year before that Hindi had his epiphany. A lifelong hunter, he stopped at the pigeon shoot on his way to the East Coast from Illinois for shark hunting.

But seeing thousands of pigeons released only to be shot seconds later at close range and then left for dead made Hindi start to think.

Luckily, the hunter got Clifton on the phone instead of an animal advocacy group.

His grand idea at the beginning: He wanted to hold a prize fight with the pigeon shoot organizer and the winner would decide the fate of the event.

"I didn't see the animal rights community going along with that," Clifton said. "It certainly was a novel idea."

Hindi's educational and attention-grabbing efforts, including video documentation, did eventually help lead to the defeat of the Hegins pigeon shoot, albeit 10 years later. The decision to finally put a stop to it came at the hands of the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in July 1999. He called the event "cruel and moronic."

Hindi soon realized that aside from the close friends he swayed to the cause, other hunters wouldn't join him.

"That caused him to seriously reappraise the whole thing," Clifton said.

He also realized that since his views included ethical hunting, he didn't really fit in with any of the existing animal rights groups.

Finding himself in between the two worlds, he decided to found the Chicago Animal Rights Coalition and, later, SHARK.

But after starting his quest with the goal of bringing dignity back to hunting, Hindi soon went all out against the sport. He buried his hunting trophies and became a vegan, a dietary habit he has since dropped.

The radical life change led him to separate from his wife.

While still involved in conventional animal-rights protests, he traveled around the country and kept getting thrown in jail. To this day, he devotes much of his time to animal rights causes, including a two-week trip this month.

"It was the downfall of our marriage," ex-wife Jacquelyn Hindi said. "I was just thinking 'I'm raising these kids alone' and 'I'm out.'æ"

But as Steve took up animal rights activism, his ex-wife became more involved in Christianity. She learned to forgive him and support his cause.

"A lot of people will say animal activists don't care about humans, but that is not the case with Steve," Jacquelyn said. "He just feels this is where his calling is and this is where his drive is. He's a great person and a great father, too."

Jacquelyn and Steve live across town from each other in Elburn. They met when he came to this area from St. Paul, Minn., as an aspiring musician.

He came to Geneva and started working at Allied Rivet as a shipping clerk. He worked his way up to running the company.

Eventually her father loaned money to the newlyweds so they could buy the company from its owner and make a living running it, which they continue to do to this day.

In between Hindi's professional life and his animal rights activities, he has also gotten both a black belt in karate and his pilot's license. He has been an advocate for the homeless and ran unsuccessfully for the state House in a contest he lost 12 years ago to To•Cross, now Illinois' House Republican leader.

Jacquelyn home-schools their youngest daughter, Eva, 13. They also have a 19-year-old, Meghan.

Compassion, she said, led Steve to take up this fight. Before he came to Chicago, he worked for United Cerebral Palsy and Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul.

"He's for the underdog," she said. "And animals tend to be. No one is standing up for them."

Choosing targets

But aside from compassion, Hindi had other motivations to turn his life around.

In a 1996 article in Animal People, Hindi wrote, "I stole the lives of uncounted victims of many species."

As he found his place within the animal rights community, he didn't focus, as so many have, on ending animal slaughter altogether.

Instead, Hindi has found success focusing somewhat narrowly on pigeon shoots, bullfighting, rodeos and, now, horse slaughter.

"My feeling is that if you are going to make change, you make change in steps," Hindi said.

In one of his most infamous stunts, Hindi took a cattle prod to himself in front of the Kane County Board in July 1998 to protest the upcoming rodeo as part of the Kane County Fair.

He later described it as a "very, very hard slap" on the arm. Many of the videos lining the shelves in Hindi's study show these prods or similar devices being used to send rodeo animals into the hysterics that make for an entertaining show.

As Hindi watches these videos, he said he truly cannot understand how people feel it's acceptable to basically torture animals for amusement.

He asks a series of questions designed to make you get the point: What if I came up to your cat or dog and flicked it here, or flicked it there, or grabbed its tail and turned it around?

You get the picture, he says.

"This is the perverted rewriting of American history," Hindi said of the rodeos. "It's the opposite in every single way of what actually occurred out on the range."

When the rodeo animals get shocked and then struggle with bucking straps, they buck wildly, sending themselves into whatever is in their paths, gates and fences included.

Hindi said of the rodeo riders: "If someone slammed them into the gate, they'd be crying for their mothers. (These devices) drive them nuts."

If someone came up with the idea of rodeos today for the first time, Hindi said, they would be "crucified."

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association steadfastly denies that any of its policies allow for the harming of animals.

In a 20-page brochure titled "Animal Welfare," it explains everything from the care of animals to the safety of the prod.

"Consistent proper treatment of animals by PRCA members - in and out of the arena - has been well documented by veterinarians who have witnessed the health and condition of the animals first-hand," the brochure reads.

Hindi chose these particular issues, Clifton said, because many others wouldn't approach them. The vast majority of animal activists are women, Clifton said, and they tend to focus on women's issues like the wearing of fur coats, the testing of makeup on animals and the treatment of pets.

"There's been relatively little attention paid to men's issues," Clifton said.

The other reason he goes after these targets, Clifton said, is they influence cultural perceptions about animals.

"What rodeo is doing is glorifying animal abuse and making it acceptable," Clifton said.

The decision is yours

Growing up in St. Paul, Hindi said he received mixed messages about how to treat animals and was encouraged in the family traditions of hunting and fishing.

"Like most children, we learned what we were taught, setting aside whatever qualms we may have felt," Hindi said in the Animal People essay. "Our mother raised us to care for cats and dogs, and we regularly took in strays, despite housing project rules, which forbade it. However, we were told that fish had no feelings, and we killed them with abandon."

He went on to describe hitting the heads of carps with rocks. One time he stuffed an M-80 firecracker into the gills of a suffocating carp, lighting the waterproof fuse and releasing him.

"Seconds later the water erupted in a red spray," Hindi wrote. "When the muddy water cleared, we saw the carp's head, blasted away from his body."

Hindi said he killed because he was taught it was OK, even if he was put off when his own behavior took it to that extreme.

While initially he thought he could keep some of the family traditions, he soon decided he would have to shed the practice entirely.

"I've really come to have a lot of distaste for the words 'tradition' and 'culture,'æ" Hindi said.

When he began to feel guilt about hunting, after the 1989 Hegins pigeon shoot, he focused mainly on the causes that teach tradition trumps thought.

"It's animals for entertainment, animals being abused for people's enjoyment and taking children," Jacquelyn Hindi said. "(At the pigeon shoot) they had these young kids, 9, 10, 11, wringing the heads off pigeons and wiping the blood on their shirts."

By showing others what he believes is the truth of animal treatment divorced from the product it's trying to sell - be it the entertainment of the rodeo or the meat of a horse - he hopes to change the way others treat animals and help them avoid all that comes with killing.

"What we have to do is to let people see and make up their own minds," Hindi said. "That's a very American way of doing things."

Hunt: Activist seeks to change perceptions