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Protecting Homo Sapiens

JUST BEFORE DAWN on August 2, 2008, a firebomb exploded at the townhouse of David Feldheim, an assistant biology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The timing of the firebombing ensured that Feldheim and his family were home and asleep. The fire quickly engulfed the first floor as Feldheim, his wife, and his two small children safely evacuated their home down a ladder from a second story window.

The firebombing, for which the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) claimed credit, was a harsh reminder of the escalation in the war being waged by animal rights extremists determined to stop researchers and institutions from using animals in research. The animal research community has responded by enhancing security and pushing for stronger laws against activists’ tactics.

Dangerous Imports

Born in the 1970s, the animal rights movement originally espoused a nonviolent credo. Its adherents did not believe in harming animals, including humans, and they mostly aimed their actions at the institutions carrying out the animal biomedical research they abhorred.

This ethos began to change a decade ago. Activists moved to demonstrating against, harassing, and intimidating people involved in animal research at their homes. These actions were becoming more dangerous by 2006, when activists adopted potentially lethal tactics, such as leaving incendiary devices on the doorsteps or under the cars of researchers.

The shift in tactics had its roots in the United Kingdom where, in 1999, a group of U.K. animal rights activists formed Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). Through a sophisticated strategy of intimidation, propaganda, and protest, the activists almost succeeded in shutting down Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a U.K.-based company that conducts product safety testing on animals.

As word of SHAC successes spread via the Internet, young, militant American animal rights activists went to the United Kingdom to learn about the group’s organizational structure and its tactics. The Americans, whom SHAC mentored, returned and set up SHAC USA.

If SHAC USA was the public face of the animal rights movement in the United States, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) was its cloak and dagger. Another U.K. import, ALF has become known for committing what are called direct actions, such as animal releases or arson, at corporate or academic institutions performing animal research. The goal is to economically harm or intimidate those engaged in perceived animal exploitation.

According to ALF guidelines, direct actions must be nonviolent for the network to recognize it as an ALF action. Its definition of nonviolent may, however, not be the same as the average person’s, since fire bombings are among the acceptable tactics. But even that limitation no longer holds sway.

One instigator of increasing the violence among animal rights activists has been Dr. Jerry Vlasak of the online North American Animal Liberation Press Office. While Vlasak claims no affiliation to ALF and has not been connected to any illegal action himself, he publicizes and lauds unlawful actions committed by ALF and other animal rights extremists in the United States. “I don’t think you’d have to kill too many [researchers],” Vlasak says. “I think for five lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million nonhuman lives.” Vlasak has even made similar remarks before Congress.

The FBI takes this rhetoric—and the acts it can spawn—seriously. Mark Giuliano, chief of the FBI’s domestic terrorism section, says the agency “views animal rights and environmental extremism as a significant threat based on the amount of economic damage in the furtherance of their ideology and the widespread nature of the threat.”

The FBI attributes more than 2,000 crimes to ALF and its cousin, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), since 1979. The agency estimates the damage caused by these acts at more than $110 million.


Two tactics stand out as the movement evolved toward personal intimidation and violence: the strategy of so-called secondary and tertiary targeting and the home visit.

Secondary and tertiary targeting involves going after whoever supplies an animal-related institution with services necessary to its survival. An example of secondary targeting would be extremists harassing a bank that provides financial services to an animal research company. Tertiary targeting would involve going after the banks’ customers because they deal with a bank that does business with an animal-related business.

It’s “brilliant,” says Dr. John Young, a veterinarian and director of the Department of Comparative Medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Young, who was himself once a victim of extremist harassment, explains the logic behind the strategy: “We’re not going to target our target; we’re going to target the companies and family members of people in companies that our target needs to do business with—so the caterers, the lawnmowers, the taxis and limos…. One by one, they’ll sever ties, and we’ll cripple this corporation.”

SHAC UK and SHAC USA did this by posting on its Web sites the names and addresses of companies and their employees that supplied HLS. They advocated constant harassment of those parties until they cut ties with HLS.

In the United Kingdom, SHAC so effectively intimidated private banks that they stopped doing business with HLS. The company required the state-run Bank of England’s support to survive the disruptions caused by the extremists.

In the United States, SHAC USA concentrated its activities on a New Jersey HLS laboratory and anyone who did business with it. On its Web site SHAC USA listed its “top 20 terror tactics,” which ranged from violent threats against a target’s family to vandalizing homes to firebombing a person’s car.

That was “the criminal genius of SHAC strategists,” says Jacquie Calnan, president of Americans for Medical Progress (AMP), an organization that supports the use of animals in medical research. “If you are the Royal Bank of Scotland and you realize that a firm comprises one small fraction of one percent of your business, and it’s costing X amount in security to deal with protesters, it’s a lot easier to drop that business as a client” than to face the consequences, according to Calnan.

Home visits. One of the animal rights movement’s most effective tactics, developed by SHAC, is the home visit. For its victims, the tactic can quickly turn from an annoyance to a terrifying ordeal.

Activists assemble outside the target’s home, sometimes in the middle of the night, shouting through bullhorns. They distribute leaflets to neighbor’s homes describing their targets as vivisectors, puppy killers, and modern-day Dr. Frankensteins.

Upping the intimidation factor, many protesters dress in all black, with masks covering their faces, and vandalize homes and cars. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. In one of the most infamous cases, three masked men beat HLS President Brian Cass with baseball bats outside his U.K. home in 2001.

Like their U.K. brethren, U.S. activists find their targets through various resources, such as the e-mail listserv called “See You in the Streets” and the Web site UCLA Primate Freedom. The sites, which claim not to advocate violence, list the names and addresses of persons thought to be involved either directly or indirectly in animal research.

The days of having an unlisted phone number and maintaining anonymity are gone, says Frankie Trull, president and founder of the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR), a Washington, D.C., organization that advocates “humane and responsible” animal research.

SHAC USA disbanded in 2006, when six members were convicted of crimes related to interstate stalking and violation of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), a 1992 law targeting animal rights terrorists who attack businesses for their use of animals. The movement, however, is a Hydra: cut one head off and others sprout in its place, says Trull.

Since 2006, there have been 61 attacks in the United States; of those, 28 occurred in California, and 11 of the California attacks targeted University of California (UC) researchers at their homes, according to a Security Management analysis of statistics from FBR.

Before 2006, there were only two known instances of animal rights extremists targeting a researcher’s home in California: one in 1999 and another in 2000. But it’s not only the frequency that has grown; the violence of these attacks has risen as well.

Of the 11 post-2006 attacks, six have involved incendiary devices, four of which exploded. Another attack involved the attempted home invasion and assault on a biomedical researcher’s husband.

Gene Mullin, a former California assemblyman, says the shift to targeting homes is at least partly a response to the fact that institutions beefed up security in 2003 after two pipe bombings struck two Bay Area corporations. At that point, he says, laboratories hardened themselves into “citadels,” leaving researchers’ homes as soft targets.

Fighting Back

The animal research community has won passage of new laws that give researchers expanded protections from harassment and intimidation. In addition, organizations doing this type of work have looked for ways to enhance physical security and have also adopted some unorthodox public- outreach strategies.

Federal law. Building on 1992’s AEPA statute, which mainly protected research facilities using animals, the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), FBR’s sister organization and lobbying arm for biomedical research on this issue, developed a broad coalition of research groups and pushed successfully in 2006 for the passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). This federal law is designed to protect enterprises and researchers who are engaged in animal-related research from the forceful, violent, and threatening acts of animal rights extremists.

The AETA expands on protections the AEPA afforded animal research facilities by making it clear that secondary parties, such as suppliers, are also covered. The law also bars animal rights extremists from harassing their target or the target’s family members through threats, vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, and intimidation. The law’s penalties range from less than a year in jail to life imprisonment if a defendant’s actions kill someone.

Activists within the animal rights community, under the umbrella of a group called STOPAETA, opposed the law, stating that it would have a chilling effect on their first amendment rights to free speech. STOPAETA also argued that the new measure was unnecessary because there were “sufficient laws already on the books to accommodate any and all illegal activist activities.”

One ardent defender of the first amendment in the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), did not oppose the bill. Instead, the ACLU asked Congress to clarify that the legislation’s language prohibiting conduct that “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property” did not criminalize legitimate dissent such as boycotts, demonstrations, or whistleblowing.

Trull says that AETA, along with the conviction of the six members of SHAC on federal charges related to the AEPA, has been effective in curtailing secondary and tertiary targeting, “which is exactly what we wanted to happen,” she says. “We would much rather have them stop than send them to jail.”

Nevertheless, the AETA will be tested in court soon. In February, four animal rights activists were arrested for violating the AETA. One of the crimes they allegedly committed was the home invasion that injured the UC researcher’s husband.

State law. California is a state with a large stake in animal research activities—and one that has, therefore, been a prime target, bearing nearly half of all animal activist attacks in the United States. In response, California has also been active in passing state legislation in an effort to address the problem.

After the firebombing of Feldheim’s house in 2008, for example, former Assemblyman Mullin led a successful effort to have the state pass the Researcher Protection Act (RPA). Unlike AETA, the state law explicitly focuses on the publishing of personal information about researchers or their families.

Under RPA, which went into effect January 1, 2009, it’s now a misdemeanor in the state to publish personal descriptions of researchers, their families, or their residences “with the intent that another person imminently use the information to commit a crime involving violence or a threat of violence against the academic researcher or his or her immediate family member.” The chief limitation of the law, however, is that the individual would have to publish the information within the state of California to be prosecuted for the offense. In a networked world, it’s easy to evade the RPA.

The RPA also outlaws entering the property of academic researchers to intimidate them and to cause them to stop their work. Those found guilty of the offense will be charged with the misdemeanor crime of trespassing.

Security Strategies

The animal research community is also actively pursuing security strategies that range from traditional facility protections to more unorthodox countermeasures, such as public outreach to win hearts and minds.

Facility security. The Comparative Medical Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles is a good example of a lab with physical security solutions and policies that work.

Young, who helped design the center, says that security was factored in. “I did something that most facilities don’t do: I put our facilities on the top two floors of a nine-story building,” he said. “Most people put their vivariums in the basement or on the ground floor, which makes it more vulnerable in my opinion.”

Young also instituted strict access controls. All animal research is housed in his building. Approved researchers enter the ninth floor facility by way of a bridge connected to the main medical center. Researchers can only enter the facility after using their electronic key cards.

To enter, researchers must clear an attended security guard station. The elevators beyond the security guard station are also key-card controlled. Researchers who want access to the facility’s animal, procedure, and necropsy rooms cannot access them with their key cards. Instead, researchers must personally go to Young’s office to pick up traditional keys to open these areas and then return them to Young.

“As Comparative Medicine is 36,000 square feet of animal housing and use space, it is very centralized,” he says. “It is not problematic for researchers to check out and return keys multiple times daily.”

In addition to the strong access controls, the lab carefully vets job candidates; a private company contracted by Cedars-Sinai conducts a California criminal background check before any employee is hired.

To further refine his selection, Young only hires researchers who have a good amount of previous research experience, have credible references, and belong to the industry’s recognized professional associations. The purpose of the vetting is not only to get the most qualified person, it’s also a safeguard against animal rights activists, who have shown themselves adept at infiltrating facility staffs.

Occasionally, new researchers bristle at the security. “They don’t like it at first,” says Young. But eventually, they “come around to appreciate the value of this tight security we have here.”

Homes. Securing facilities, as noted earlier, doesn’t fully address the problem, however, because animal activists also target researchers at home. In fact, homes have been the primary target with regard to the UC incidents.

“We haven’t had an attack on the campus itself,” says Captain John Adams, head of field operations for the fully sworn UCLA Police Department. “All of our attacks have been off-campus in various cities at researchers’ homes, [located in] outlying areas patrolled by other police agencies.”

If necessary, UCLA police officers will respond off campus at researchers’ homes, says university spokesman Phil Hampton.

Adams says that his office has formal agreements with the police departments of Los Angeles and Santa Monica and the California Highway Patrol to respond quickly to a researcher’s home if an incident occurs. The university also works with the regional Joint Terrorism Task Force.

UCLA has also helped harden researchers’ homes. The university provides private security guards to protect researchers’ homes and has invested in security enhancements, such as video surveillance systems, lighting, and motion detection. In fiscal year 2008, UCLA spent approximately $300,000 protecting its researchers’ homes, according to Hampton.

UCLA takes steps to prepare researchers and those around them for the risks they will encounter as well. UCLA police officers now educate possible targets and their neighbors regarding what they can expect if animal rights extremists target them for a home visit. This outreach is critical, says Adams, because once aware of the problem, the local Neighborhood Watch groups can be force multipliers for law enforcement.

The university uses whatever legal options it has to curtail extremist activities. For example, it won civil injunctions against three animal rights groups—ALF, Animal Liberation Brigade, and the UCLA Primate Freedom Project—and five animal rights extremists believed to affiliate with them. The injunctions say that those named or anyone “acting in concert” with them can protest no closer than 50 feet in front of a researcher’s home during the day. After 6 p.m., protesters must remain 150 feet away and respect local noise ordinances. Anyone targeted by animal rights extremists should also reach out to their local Joint Terrorism Task Force, says the FBI’s Giuliano.

Public outreach. Researchers and advocates say the attacks won’t stop until the public understands what researchers do and why it is necessary. With that in mind, biomedical researchers and likeminded nonprofit organizations such as AMP and FBR are taking a new approach toward the public.

In the past, when animal rights extremists targeted a research facility, operators typically adopted a bunker mentality; they denied animals were used in research and said “no comment” when reporters asked questions. That was a mistake, according to Calnan.

Calnan and others advocate public outreach as a part of any security plan. The research community seeks to inform the public that animal research holds significant benefits for humans and animals alike. Without animal research, its supporters argue, cures or treatments for diseases such as polio, smallpox, and diabetes would not have been found.

“I, myself, have epilepsy,” Calnan admitted. “And without the medicine I’m taking right now, I would not be able to work. That medicine was developed 10 years ago through animal research.”

Animal research advances the health of people’s pets and farm animals too. Vaccines discovered during animal research protect against myriad afflictions, including anthrax and rabies.

Public outreach efforts must also combat popular misconceptions. Many people imagine researchers as mad scientists with carte blanche to do what they will with their animal subjects. But the converse is true.

“We’re fond of saying that [animal research] is more regulated than the use of humans in research,” says Trull.

Researchers “are not only ethically bound to do that but the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) requires that we minimize pain and suffering, that we use the smallest number of animals, and that whenever possible, we use nonanimal alternatives,” Dr. Michael Conn, associate director and senior scientist at the Oregon National Primate Research Center and co-author of The Animal Research War, explains. “We have committees that evaluate every single animal protocol as we’re required [by law] to do and make a determination that they’re humane.”

Every year the Department of Agriculture conducts at least one unannounced inspection to all licensed and registered facilities. Anyone found in repeated violation of the AWA faces civil penalties including cease-and-desist orders, fines, and license suspensions and revocations.

Despite the safeguards, some ideas are hard to shake without visual proof. That’s why Young started offering tours of his research facilities.

Anticipating the inevitable protests outside the medical center during “World Week for Laboratory Animals” in 1993, Young and other researchers held a counterdemonstration themed “Animal Research Saves Lives.”

When the local media showed up, Young gave them a tour of the facility. The tour made the nightly news broadcast allowing viewers to judge for themselves whether the animal-rights groups’ criticisms were justified.

“And that was the last demonstration we had at Cedars-Sinai,” Young says.

Today, Young gives a public tour about every two weeks. At the end of the tour, he asks the group: “Was it anything like you imagined?” The answer is always “no.” The visitors are surprised to find a brightly lit environment where animals play with toys, Young says.

Through public outreach, animal research advocates hope they can throw a monkey wrench into the animal rights movement’s recruiting campaigns and, thereby, limit the number of people willing to join in their extremist tactics.

But public outreach and transparency only go so far. There will always be a hardcore nucleus of extremists ready to up the ante. When they do, researchers hope good security protocols, the police, and the law are enough to protect them from the escalating violence of the animal rights movement.

Matt Harwood is an associate editor at Security Management.