My pulse rate immediately jumped during the first scene of Curt Johnson's documentary Your Mommy Kills Animals. A woman wearing a fur coat is brutally assaulted. I breathed a sigh of relief to see that it was "only" a commercial, but before my blood could settle, the next scene shows a dog being even more brutally assaulted. That footage, sadly, is real, allowing no lowering of the blood pressure.

And so it goes throughout the film. If, like me, you didn't know beforehand the difference between animal rights, animal liberation, and animal welfare, you certainly will by the time the end credits roll. Far beyond a simple educational primer, though, the doc drops you in the middle of a very contentious issue and pushes every hot button imaginable. You're simply not allowed to not react. I found my emotions rolling between heated anger and utter disgust, yet never felt manipulated by the film itself. Instead, director Johnson presents opposing viewpoints in a fairly evenhanded fashion. The film is not entirely without its own bias -- which becomes more apparent upon a second viewing -- but you're allowed to draw your own conclusions without feeling like the filmmakers are shoving you into a predetermined corner.

The basic framing device is the trial of the so-called "SHAC 7," a group of six animal rights activists accused of violating federal anti-terrorism laws by encouraging direct action protests on their web site. The group was formed as part of a worldwide campaign to stop animal testing at the Huntingdon Life Sciences laboratory -- really, to shut down the company. Two members are interviewed, and in their appearances, interspersed throughout the film, they appear calm, kind, peaceful and entirely reasonable. How could they pose any kind of threat? Then you see one of them shouting angrily through a megaphone, and see other members of the group yelling invectives through megaphones inches from an executive's front door, and watch more angry confrontations between protesters and protest targets, and it's hard not to feel somewhat outraged.

But who deserves the outrage? From the point of view of certain animal rights activists, talk is cheap; only action causes change. One of the SHAC 7 compares the animal rights movement to past social actions against slavery and racial discrimination. In that context, "by any means necessary" becomes the catchphrase. Even the gentlest-sounding member of the SHAC 7 wonders whether it wouldn't be better to take direct physical action against the targets of their protest, if the result of talking is going to be prison time anyway. Some animal welfare advocates believe that animal rights activists are taking things too far, poisoning the public mind toward their efforts to protect and save animals from abuse.

Your Mommy Kills Animals lays things out with historical perspective, tracing the roots of both the animal welfare movement and animals rights activism to England. A wide variety of interview subjects then provides lively snippets of opinion and criticism, as protests become more extreme. The focus of the documentary narrows as it's revealed that the FBI declared that animals rights activists were the #1 domestic terrorism threat after 9/11, which leads to the legal case of the SHAC 7.

After a fairly thorough grounding in these issues, the doc moves on to PETA and their methods, highlighting PETA's official policy on euthanasia as "often the most compassionate option," as stated on their web site. PETA also published a leaflet which gives the film its name; "Your Mommy Kills Animals!" depicts a woman with bloody knife in hand, stabbing a rabbit, and on the reverse side, cautionary messages directed to children: "There are terrible people who cause our furry friends to die that way every day. And guess what? One of those terrible people is your mommy. Your mommy kills animals! I bet you didn't know that." The text is accompanied by graphic pictures of maltreated animals; the leaflet was to be distributed to children arriving to see The Nutcracker. Celebrities who endorse PETA are criticized for not knowing what, exactly, PETA stands for and for not knowing about some of their more controversial positions, but the criticism is one-sided since we don't hear extended sound bites from any celebrities in defense of PETA.

Both PETA and The Humane Society reportedly agreed to be interviewed for the film and then backed out. The Humane Society comes in for a special grilling for their actions during Hurricane Katrina, when they took in large amounts of donations yet might not have been as effective as smaller grass-roots organizations in actually rescuing animals.

The documentary then circles back around to the SHAC 7 as we learn the outcome of their trial.

My only real criticism of the film is that I wished that more background had been provided on some of the interview subjects. We hear quite often from David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom, criticizing animal welfare and animal rights groups, as well as from Shane and Sia Barbi ("The Barbi Twins") in defense of animal welfare and against certain animal rights activists. What made these folks the leading experts? (Other than the fact that Barbi Twins are listed as associate producers?) That's where the large number of interviewees works against the film; there are so many, with such conflicting opinions, that's it hard to navigate through the inevitable double-talk.

One example: white-haired Paul Wallace Watson * is interviewed and early on relates a passionate account of encountering a whale that had been harpooned and was dying. Later in the doc he is heard saying that some young protesters are surprised when their radical actions result in their being arrested, and questions whether they're fully aware of the possible ramifications for what they're doing. From my first viewing alone, I thought he must be a conservative environmentalist. Recently, however, Watson was profiled in The New Yorker, which paints a picture of him as one of the more radical members of the "save the whales / save our seas" brigade, ready to ram whaling vessels with his own ship to keep them from killing whales. That casts his interview in Your Mommy Kills Animals in a slightly different light.

No documentary can be all things to all people. I highly doubt that anyone who is already heavily invested in the animal rights or animal welfare movements will change their mind or their tactics after seeing the film. But for everyone else, it does an effective job of awakening emotions and encouraging further investigation.

The DVD from Halo-8 Entertainment features a crystal-clear video transfer. Extras are limited to a montage of trailers of titles from the distributor. It's disappointing that no real extras are included; it would have been interesting to hear from Johnson as to his own background and what drew him to the subject, and to have additional information on the interviewees, as I noted above.

* Corrected. Thanks to reader "Nobody" for pointing this out.