Animal Rights Debate: Feisty Activist No 'Peacenik'

Crusader's Tactics Draw Admiration-And Criticism



By Jim Ritter
Staff Writer

Several deer are eating dinner in a Dupage County forest preserve when suddenly they're trapped by nets shot from rockets.

One startled deer jumps, flips over and lands on her back. Other animals squeal and writhe under the nets. In three separate nettings, forest preserve workers kill five deer by shooting bolts into their heads.

Animal rights activist Steve Hindi secretly videotapes this rocket netting with a timed camera and watched the video, 'I wanted to go down to the forest preserve [office], lock the doors and rip them limb from limb."

As Hindi makes clear, he's no "peacenik, bunny-hugger." He's an animal rights "activist with an attitude."

The 40 year-old businessman is the head of the Chicago Animal Rights Coalition, which has 400 people on its mailing list and about a dozen core members. Hindi is perhaps the most admired animal rights crusader in the Chicago area.

And the most hated.

Critics call him an intimidating zealot who stirs up emotions by producing misleading videos of alleged animal abuse. He insults opponents. He gets in shouting matches, gets arrested, gets in your face.

But to admirer Davida Terry of the Lake County-based Voice for Wildlife, Hindi "is one of the few people in the animal rights movement that is really getting things done."

Hindi says he doesn't like the notoriety, but critics aren't so sure. "He's staged media events for the past three years," said Brook McDonald, spokesman for the DuPage County Forest Preserve District. "He thrives on the attention."

Hindi's deer video, which made the TV news, persuaded DuPage forest preserve officials to sharply curtail the use of rocket nets. Hindi helped lead the successful campaign to ban pigeon shooting contests. He's long been a public-relations headache for the Shedd Aquarium, and he's prompted an investigation of alleged animal abuse at a rodeo in north suburban Wauconda.

"He is a model for all of us," said Barbara Chadwick of Animal Rights Mobilization in Chicago. "he never gives up, never says die."

Hindi, president of Allied Tubular Rivet in Geneva, lives in rural Kendall county with his wife, Jackie, two daughters, five dogs, and seven cats.

He'd kill to protect his dogs. "My dog's worth more than the person who would kick it to death because that guy is a piece of ----," he said.

He used to be an avid hunter and fisherman-"I was proficient at killing"-but quit after becoming an animal rights activist. The defining moment for Hindi occurred in 1990, when he attended a protest of a pigeon shoot in Pennsylvania on his way home form an East Coast shark fishing trip.

In the competition, hunters shot pigeons after they were released into the air. Hindi said he was arrested after kicking in the window of a motorist who drove into protesters. He also has been arrested and convicted for trespassing in the DuPage forest preserve, but the conviction was reversed on appeal and the county dropped the case.

After the pigeon shoot, Hindi resolved never to kill again. He became a vegetarian and stopped wearing leather. "You can get beautiful dress shoes and belts that look like leather but aren't," he said. And barbecued tofu "is pretty passable."

Hindi's philosophy may be out of step in a county where millions of people hunt and fish and almost everyone eats meat.

"I don't think killing anything is glamorous," said William Vajdik, president of the Seneca Hunt Club, one of Hindi's targets. "But whether you buy meat at Jewel or harvest it yourself in a fair chase scenario… the end result is the same. The animal is used for human consumption to sustain life."

The Seneca club, which used to conduct pigeon shoots under the supervision of the Illinois Conservation Department was one of Hindi's first targets. Here's how the Ottawa Daily Times described his protest:

"Some of the name-calling that we can print, directed at the Department of Conservation police officers, included 'Department of Cowards, Department of Chickens, Department of Mutilation and Department of Scumbags.' "

Hindi says the newspaper left out his favorite insult: "Department of Corruption." A Conservation Department officer declined comment, but Vadjdik said Hindi "behaved in a manner that I would consider radical and unusual… He did everything possible to be a nuisance and proclaim his hatred of people who enjoy a sport."

After protests and lobbying by Hindi's coalition and other groups, the Illinois Legislature repealed a law that allowed pigeon shoots. And in 1992, the Illinois attorney general's office issued an informal opinion that pigeon shoots violate the state's animal care act.

Now Hindi is fighting the DuPage Forest Preserve District's deer-killing program. The district says deer overpopulation is destroying the ecosystem.

After Hindi showed his secret video to the commission on Jan. 17, commissioners banned rocket nets for killing purposes but allowed the continued use of sharpshooters. Rocket nets now are allowed only for research projects.

District officials say Hindi's narration of his video was inaccurate on several counts. For example, Hindi said deer were kept under the net for half an hour while waiting to be killed. In fact, they were being sedated and outfitted with a collar that transmits radio signals for a deer research project, district officials say. The district also denies Hindi's assertion that workers appear to be clubbing deer.

Hindi is "very good at getting a visual image whether it's true or not," McDonald said. Hindi says any inaccuracies in his narration are the district's fault-if it allowed the public to view deer kills, he wouldn't have to rely on a grainy undercover video.

Shedd officials also accuse Hindi of using misleading videos. Hindi has videotaped a beluga whale swimming back and forth in the same pattern. This repetitive swimming, Hindi says, is a sign the animal is bored and stressed in Shedd's "aquaprison."

Shedd officials say repetitive swimming is merely a form of resting, which occurs in the wild as well as captivity.

"Steve is most passionate about his cause but is not particularly well-informed," said Shedd spokeswoman Martha Benaroya.

Last summer, Hindi's group protested outside the Shedd every Sunday. "We receive a lot of complaints," Benaroya said. "His use of a megaphone in front of our building is intimidating to people."

Hindi has argued with visitors standing outside in line and once came to blows. "In my years in this, I've gotten pretty good at berating people," he said. "I'm not nonviolent, but we'll never take the first swing."

Next summer, Hindi said, he'll renew his campaign to free whales and dolphins from their "concrete, chlorinated tanks." He also plans to protest the Wauconda Chamber of commerce's 32nd annual rodeo July 7-9.

"Rodeos exist on the fear, pain and suffering of animals and their desire to escape," Hindi said.

Using a camera that can shoot form more than a block away, Hindi videotaped rodeo workers twisting animals' tails, throwing sand in their faces and poking them in the side. That video also made the TV news.

Investigating Hindi's allegation of animals abuse, Lake County State's Attorney Mike Waller showed the video to the Illinois Agriculture Department and three veterinarians.

"Veterinarians told us that what was depicted on the tape were common techniques for large animals, and in their opinion there was no cruelty," Waller said. "I would characterize [Hindi] as overzealous.

Hindi concedes his views on animal rights aren't mainstream. "There was a time when the first Christians were a fringe," he said. "I don't have a problem being a fringe.

"Animal rights should not be a popularity contest. The question is whether non-human animals have a God-given right to fair treatment and consideration,… All creation matters, not just in the human race."

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