The O.G. of animal activism
Protesting New Jersey’s black bear hunt, a professor, 75, spends his winter break in jail — again
By Becca Tucker
Bill Crain puts a kettle on the stove for tea. It’s Sunday, one week after his 75th birthday, and three days before he will surrender himself at the Sussex County Jail.
Crain is a psychology professor at CUNY and the owner, with his wife Ellen, of Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary in Poughquag, NY. He has been arrested nine times for protesting New Jersey’s black bear hunt, and he’s been to jail the last two years, but never for this long. Tea in hand and a rescue dog at his feet, we sit down at his dining room table in a room full of books.
More than angry, he’s resigned. He wishes he didn’t have to do this, that New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy had abided by his campaign promise to stop the bear hunt. It had looked like he was going to, but then the governor decided at the last minute to ban the hunt only on state land, reducing the hunt by about 60 percent but not eliminating it.
Crain is matter-of-fact about the prospect of being locked up. After all, he stepped out of the protest zone near a bear weigh station in Fredon, NJ in a deliberate act of civil disobedience. His 20-day jail sentence (of which he will end up serving 16) and an approximately $1,300 fine might be a bit draconian, but Crain wouldn’t accept a pardon if it were offered. The point, he said, is to stand up for the bears by showing how seriously he takes their killing.
This past year 225 bears were killed. That’s down from 409 in 2017, but it’s still murder, Crain says, without raising his voice.
The state hasn’t done a proper count of the bears, argues Crain. But no number of bears would justify a hunt in his mind. If New Jersey were overpopulated, he said, no one would suggest killing every fifth person. (In fact, while New Jersey is gaining a reputation as bear country, it’s less well known as the state most densely populated by that other large land mammal: humans. There are over 1,200 people per square mile in New Jersey, almost three times the density of humans in New York.)
Crain’s solution? Securing garbage and putting bird feeders away after the winter would probably reduce the number of bears, he said, and would certainly cut down on complaints. Then people could live with the bears.
New Jersey’s annual bear hunt splits locals into two irreconcilable sides every time it comes around. Crain started testifying against the hunt when it was proposed in 1997, when he was living in Teaneck. Things have only gotten more heated since a 300-pound male black bear killed a 22-year-old Rutgers student who was hiking in northwest Jersey in 2014.
Online, Crain has been called an “ecoterrorist, “idiot” and “jerkoff” with a “disordered view of reality” who deserves to serve “six months minimum.” In handing down his sentence, Judge James Devine, of Andover Joint Municipal Court, warned that this was likely the last time he’d be this lenient.
“Can they schedule him to be in jail during the next bear hunt to save us taxpayers money?” wrote Mike Lavin, of Hacketstown, N.J., under a newspaper story about Crain’s arrest. “Will keep us from paying for his stay next year.”
Crain checks his watch. The afternoon light is already waning. It’s time for his scratch rounds: his daily check-in with the animals, as they come running for a scoop of feed. A mini potbelly pig named Harry and I tag along as Crain visits his menagerie of unwanted creatures. There are broilers almost too fat to walk; a blind industrial turkey that has outlived its intended six-week lifespan by a decade; a goat that came to them with parasites so severe it needed a stomach repair; a chicken that was found covered in wax, probably an escapee from a voodoo ceremony.
Watching Crain limp through his chores, it’s hard not to wonder how much longer he can keep doing this, especially when Harry darts in front of him, anticipating food. He has slipped on this hill when it’s icy. But he and Ellen have no intention of slowing down. They’re actually looking for a larger piece of property to accommodate their ever growing roster of charges. At the moment, various chickens, a domestic bunny found wandering in Central Park, and even a goat are living inside, in fenced off portions of the office, where their crew of young volunteers also hangs out and eat cupcakes. Ellen would like to rescue a couple cows. Somebody wants them to take a pheasant. “We don’t know how to do it, where to do it,” said Crain. “We need more pasture. We just need more.”
Jail promises to be a trial for a septuagenarian with two artificial hips. While his CUNY colleagues are on midwinter break, Crain will be enduring 16 days of trying to sleep on plastic sheets with no pillow, and hardest, of the isolation and monotony when he can’t get hold of a book.
So far, though, Crain hasn’t been harassed by other inmates. In a piece he wrote after last year’s jail stint, Crain describes how the inmates in the exercise yard warmed to him after he stopped trying to blend into the background and started acting the affirming elder, complimenting the guys on their push-ups and pull-ups.
These weeks will be tough on Ellen, too, a retired pediatrician who now works on the sanctuary full-time. She’ll have to take on her husband’s share of the work in caring for their 100 animals. In addition to her regular morning chores she’ll be doing the shopping for farm supplies and the bed checks Bill usually does after dinner, making sure each stall is closed tightly to keep the animals safe from predators. But Ellen’s main concern is her husband. She worries about him, things like whether he’s been allowed to go to the commissary to buy long johns.
“I’m very proud of him,” Ellen said, for bringing attention to a practice that’s so un-sporting as to be barbaric. The hunt, she explained, takes place in the winter, when bears are hibernating. Hunters make a lot of noise in front of where they think the bears are. The mother bear stumbles out of her cave, where she is shot. The cubs come looking for their mother, and they either get shot or wander off, sometimes onto the highway to get killed by a car. “Mostly it makes me sad that he has to go through this and we aren’t able to really rethink our relationship to animals. In a much better society those guys would be charged with murder, instead of Bill getting charged for stepping off the curb.”
As Ellen talks, she fills syringe after syringe with a malodorous blended mush for a toothless goat that needs feeding three times a day. “You’re a good woman,” I tell her. “She’s a good woman,” she says of the goat, “for eating this stuff.”
Three visitors show up to the Sussex County Jail in Newton, NJ on a Wednesday night. All of us are here to see Crain. Probably out of concern for a 75-year-old college professor’s safety, he has been placed in a segment of the jail for inmates who are having trouble integrating. The other two visitors are colleagues from CUNY, a math professor and a history professor-and-librarian.
The three of us empty our pockets, go through a metal detector and take seats in an otherwise empty waiting area. The math professor gets called in first. While he and Crain visit, I get to know Daisy Dominguez, 43, a soft-spoken Brooklynite who like Crain is an animal lover and vegan. She describes how Crain broadened her idea of what kind of person an activist needs to be. He is an unusual combination: he was recently elected ombudsman of the college, so he clearly has institutional credibility, but look him up online and there he is getting thrown out of a trustees meeting for protesting a tuition hike.
Dominguez recalls crossing the rotunda on campus a few years ago and seeing Crain, up on a table chanting, the students on the ground following his lead. “He was not screaming particularly loudly,” Dominguez said. “He even sounded a bit tired. But he did it anyway and they repeated after him. For someone like me who doesn’t have the presence that you expect from an activist (or professor for that matter), it’s just good to have him as a role model. He does a lot, but he’s not showy about it or particularly talkative. We can all do small things in quiet ways and still make a difference. And even when we do need to speak out, it doesn’t have to be polished for the 6 o’clock news. Just do your part and be genuine.”
The officer tells us it’s our turn. Because time is limited, Dominguez and I are to go in together. Out comes the math professor, and in we go, walking down a hallway past a couple concrete-block cubicles with phones on either side of Plexiglass windows, just like in the movies. When I see Crain, I stop short.
He is sitting on the other side of the window in a gray-and-white striped short sleeved V-neck, his head bowed and face completely covered by both his large hands. It’s a posture I’ve seen in children, who do not want to be where they are but cannot exit the situation. Dominguez and I step back out of sight, giving him a moment.
After a minute we take our plastic seats. Crain smiles his wide smile bravely and motions for us to pick up the phones. There are two receivers on our side, but only one works, so Dominguez and I spend the next 20 minutes with our faces inches apart, craning our necks to take turns asking questions and listen on one receiver.
It’s hard, Crain says. He remembers wondering as a child visiting a zoo what it felt like to be caged, and now he knows his inkling was correct. But “billions of animals are confined worse than that for having committed no crimes in the factory farms.”
It’s noisier this time, more raucous. He’s on a bottom bunk and has a roommate. Three cells with two inmates apiece open into a day room, where they’re let out in pairs. They keep the TV on loud all the time, making it hard to read. The quarters are tighter, with people coming in and out, who are either bullying other people or getting bullied. But at least it hasn’t been so cold. Smiling again, as if he’s proud of the prison cafeteria workers, he says they’ve figured out what vegan food is this time; they haven’t been giving him cheese. He’s been eating a lot of pasta and veggies.
He and Ellen didn’t even discuss her visiting. With everything she has to do to keep the sanctuary running there’s just no way she can spare five hours for a round trip. But most days, he checked in by phone twice a day, at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., when she was coming in from chores. He had to argue for his time slots, but eventually got his way. The inmates had once again accepted his elder status, saying things like, “Gotta listen to Bill, come on man, Bill’s the O.G.”
A couple days the jail’s phone went out, and Bill knew Ellen was more worried than she let on. “She’s a stoic kind of person. She just works,” he said. “She worked real hard as a doctor and she just works hard on our farm. It’s hard work, being a farmer. Hats off to farmers.”
While Crain was serving his sentence, a few dozen activists from The BEAR Group, a New Jersey activist network, held a vigil for him in the driving rain outside the jail. Crain’s eyes mist when he mentions it. I’d seen a video of the protest. With the hands not holding umbrellas the protesters hoisted signs that said “Bill Crain Patriot,” and chanted “Release Bill Crain, shame on Fish & Game.” That’s shorthand for New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, which oversees the hunt and, as Crain points out, profits from the sale of licenses.
Conversation is lagging a little when Dominguez, struck with inspiration, asks Crain to tell me the story about the ducks. Dominguez sets up the context. This was a story that Crain told at a conference in the university’s Great Hall, a setting imbued with the decorum of a venerable institution.
Crain nods and launches into it again, this time into his prison receiver. Some mallard ducks occasionally escaped from a nearby hunting club and took up residence on the pond at the animal sanctuary. The Crains installed bubblers so the ducks could live there all winter. Bill fed the ducks corn or grain in the mornings, until a pair of geese moved in and dominated the feedings, driving the ducks away. A few days later, several ducks swam toward the geese with their heads low, in attack mode, and the geese flew away, startled. “They formed like a squadron,” said Crain. “They organized themselves into a battalion and it shook up the geese.” After that a truce developed, and the ducks and geese shared the food.
The moral, about what you can accomplish by organizing, is clear. But what had struck Dominguez was the fact that Crain told this story in the middle of a historic hall with stained glass windows and 65-foot marble columns.
“Folks laughed,” she recalled, “whether because they got the moral of his story or they were surprised by him telling a sentimental story in that venue, or both, which is one of the reasons that I respect and appreciate Bill so much. He is so genuine and unafraid to be down-to-earth and keep things simple, no matter the venue. It gives others courage to do the same.”
A mechanical woman’s voice interrupts Crain: two minutes left. Did he have anything else he wanted to say, I ask.
He wants people to think about the bears. To ask themselves: Why would a man be in here?
He lists qualities that bears share with humans, his fingers on the bridge of his nose and eyes closed. They have individual personalities and social lives. They care for their young. They have a sense of humor, he says, smiling as he recounts a video clip of a young bear over-playing his encounter with a swinging tire that had bumped him. “He acted like a comedian, pretending like he was knocked for a loop, bouncing around and staggering, exaggerating everything. He just barely touched it. He put on a show – it was funny.”
Thirty seconds, says the voice.
They experience grief, fear, joy, wonder. They want to live, just like us. But they are also different from us: physically much stronger, they restrain their power. They are more peaceful, gentler than we are. The receiver goes dead while Crain is talking. An officer in a bulletproof vest appears and escorts him away.
Back on campus, people seem a little afraid of asking Crain about, er, his winter break. “A lot of people have asked, ‘Are you okay?’” he said. “It’s not something in our world we go through. They’re a little wary about asking more details.” There’s a stigma attached to being in jail. Crain’s 12-year-old granddaughter had cut into a phone conversation with his son, saying “Don’t tell anybody, Grandpa!”
The day I caught up with Crain on the phone, a student had stopped awkwardly in the hall. “He was a little scared to ask me,” said Crain, sounding amused. “He was looking at me out of the corner of his eye, inspecting me. Finally he said, ‘I heard you were incarcerated.’”
For Crain, the whole point is to shout it from the rooftops. Yet the truth is he really doesn’t want to dwell on his time behind bars. For a week after he got out, he dreamt he was still in jail, “in the bunk bed looking up, wondering what was coming next, where I was going next. Being confined like that for people, I don’t know how they keep their sanity. I was in for a relatively short time,” he said.
Crain’s fellow inmates had sent him on his way with a keepsake: a script they’d had some fun writing. “What’s up homies and homettes,” they wanted him to say when he walked into class. “I just got out of the coop. I was pinched at the bear hunt. I was in the box for 10 days,” (that’s solitary confinent — Crain was not).
“They wanted me to say I formed a posse called the Saviors because they knew I had an animal sanctuary. They wrote this whole thing. They thought it would be hilarious,” said Crain. “I didn’t have the nerve to pull it off.”