Logo IMG
HOME > PAST ISSUE > Article Detail


Winners and Losers in the Animal Research Wars

Michael Conn, James Parker

Anti-animal-research terrorists in the United States aim to intimidate biomedical scientists into giving up their research programs, and these radicals are growing bolder. They have planted bombs, issued death threats and targeted the children of scientists who don't comply with their strong-arm tactics. And the leaders of this cabal aspire to greater crimes. Tim Daley of the Animal Liberation Front has said, "In a war you have to take up arms and people will get killed, and I can support that kind of action by petrol bombing and bombs under cars, and probably at a later stage, the shooting of vivisectors on their doorsteps."

Although ALF and other extremist groups aim their attacks at scientists, almost all of their actual victims are unseen. "When research laboratories and university researchers are targeted and attacked, the ones who lose most are those who are living with a disease or who are watching a loved one struggling with a devastating illness," said Senator Orrin Hatch in a 2004 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. People hoping for a cure suffer most acutely when scientists experience these mob tactics. But they aren't the only ones. The extremists aren't too concerned about who gets hurt as long as it attracts media attention.

Firebombed animal-nutrition laboratoryClick to Enlarge Image

The 70-year-old neighbor of scientist Lynn Fairbanks was almost one of these victims. Fairbanks is director of the Center for Primate Neuroethology at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2006, the Animal Liberation Front boasted of leaving a "Molotov Cocktail" outside Fairbanks's home. But they got the address wrong and almost immolated the porch of the septuagenarian neighbor. In 2007, the Animal Liberation Brigade placed a lighted incendiary device next to a car at the home of Arthur Rosenbaum, chief of pediatric ophthalmology at UCLA. Fortunately, the device failed to detonate, but the danger was serious enough that police evacuated the neighborhood while the bomb squad disposed of the homemade explosive. On February 5, 2008, a firebomb was detonated at the home of Edythe London, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at UCLA. It was the second attack on her in four months.

As outrageous as these incidents are, they garnered little media attention outside of California. Even a six-figure reward offered by the City of Los Angeles, UCLA and two federal agencies failed to make the national news. But if the general public remained oblivious of this nascent backyard terrorism, scientists paid close attention.

Dario Ringach is a tenured professor at UCLA who walked away from a successful, funded research program in neuroscience after constant harassment from extremists. The barrage of insulting phone calls must have been unpleasant, certainly, but the physical intimidation from people demonstrating in front of his home was on another level: The demonstrators wanted him to fear for his family's safety. When strangers began approaching and frightening his children, it became too much.

A Growing Problem

These stories aren't just from southern California. Ed Walsh and his wife, JoAnn McGee (also a scientist), became targets in Nebraska. Walsh was head of the developmental auditory physiology lab at the Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha. A newly hired security guard at the hospital turned out to be a member of an animal extremist group. This person video-recorded aspects of Walsh's research, which involved cochlear surgery in cats. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a suggestively edited version of the footage and claimed Walsh had violated the Animal Welfare Act. PETA's claims were later debunked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The facts of the case did not deflect the blistering online attacks, personal confrontations and a merciless threat to kill Walsh's five-year-old son. In an interview in Maclean's magazine, Walsh recalled, "The impact on our family is virtually impossible to assess . . . I can tell you that it was huge, devastating. It's a life-altering experience to have your life, and the lives of your children, so exposed. Routine daily habits—like turning an ignition switch or walking across a parking lot—can become anxiety-ridden." He went on to say, "They didn't pick on us, per se. Anyone using animals for anything is a target. PETA recognized the public relations value in targeting high-profile institutions a long time ago."

We understand. Several years after Walsh's experience, we learned that the same individual was working at our facility, this time as an animal-care technician. As before, he published edited video of animals used in our research program in an attempt to shut us down. But just as in Ed Walsh's case, an extensive USDA investigation found no substance to the accusations. Our vindication hasn't stopped these unsupported claims and falsified images from persisting on the Internet and in animal-extremist brochures to this day.

The threats and violence are even more prevalent in some countries. In England, some scientists have given up their cars rather than having them searched for bombs every day. Extremists in Oxford and Cambridge used these intimidation tactics in an effort to stop construction of an animal facility. Their larger goal was (and is) to shutter all animal research in the UK. These agitators weren't novices or students—they were repeat offenders. The spokesman for one of the groups had already served jail time for possessing incendiary devices with the intent of bombing a contract-research organization. They were effective, too, for a time, temporarily stopping construction at one facility by threatening construction workers. These workmen—not a puny or easily frightened group—were so intimidated that they took to wearing balaclavas to conceal their identify from protestors trying to learn their home addresses.

Future Threat

It is clear that the violence and threatened violence are taking a toll on researchers. But they are also influencing the career decisions of students considering this lifework. David Skorton, president of Cornell University, spoke of his worry that researchers and students were being scared off by attacks from animal-rights advocates. ALF, which took credit for break-ins and property destruction at the University of Iowa during Skorton's tenure as president there, distributed to activists the home addresses of scientists who conduct animal research. "Publicizing this personal information was blatant intimidation," Skorton pointed out, adding that because of safety worries, "numerous researchers are even concerned about allowing their children to play in their own yards." He acknowledged that the cost of such intimidation was difficult to quantify, but he believed it "could be measured by many, many" lives lost. His words echoed those of Richard Bianco, vice president for research at the University of Minnesota, where an attack by vandals in 1999 caused more than $2 million in damage. "The financial aspect is the least of our problems . . . the hardest thing is people see this and don't want to go into science," he said. "Why would they go into science when they can have their work threatened like that?"

Total number of illegal events by animal-rights exClick to Enlarge Image

For the unlucky individuals who happen to become targets, a life devoted to medical science comes to resemble that of a soldier in a war zone. Most persevere, but not all. Who pays when research scientists give up productive careers? We all do. When Ringach announced his decision to stop his research, UCLA issued a statement saying, "we all suffer when animal rights activists attempt to intimidate researchers by physically threatening and harassing them and their families, including young children."

Have all animal-rights activists embraced these terrorist methods? Of course not. But Ringach, Fairbanks, Rosenbaum and we are suffering from those who have. Nonviolent protestors aren't part of the immediate equation of terror, although they sometimes (knowingly or not) help pay for it. Extremist Web sites boasted of their victory over Ringach more than a year after he sent the e-mail that stated, "You win." That boast continues to motivate new practitioners of violence and intimidate scientists who pursue careers in animal research.

We were taken by the matter-of-fact way that Robert Dennis at the University of Michigan puts potential students on notice. His Web site states, almost casually,

Also, you should be aware that due to the highly controversial nature of this research, which involves animal-machine hybrids and, of course, stem cells, you will constantly be at risk from extremist groups and individuals. I have personally received many threatening messages, and one of my personal friends was a victim of the infamous Unabomber. Animal rights groups are also an issue. You must be prepared to deal with assaults from every quarter . . . .

To date, these attacks have been relatively infrequent, and no one has been killed. Indeed, many people who tout animal rights claim that their actions are intended to protect human and animal life. But the leaders of these movements have stated, for the record, their endorsement of every tactic described above. A sampling:

"Arson, property destruction, burglary and threat are 'acceptable crimes' when used for the animal cause." (Alex Pacheco, co-founder of PETA. Quoted in an Associated Press News feature, January 3, 1989)

"I would be overjoyed when the first scientist is killed by a liberation activist." (Vivien Smith, former spokesperson for ALF. Quoted in USA Today, September 3, 1991)

"Property destruction is a legitimate political tool called economic sabotage, and it's meant to attack businesses and corporations." (David Barbarash, spokesperson for ALF. Interview on "The Connection," National Public Radio, January 7, 2002)

"I don't think you'd have to kill—assassinate—too many [doctors involved with animal testing] … I think for 5 lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million non-human lives." (Jerry Vlasak, spokesperson for the Animal Defense League. Speech at "Animal Rights 2003," Los Angeles. August 3, 2003)

These comments strip away any pretense of nonviolence that groups like PETA may claim. This is naked intimidation, the kind that influences the career decisions of young researchers. It is heartening to see scientists fight back—UCLA recently announced a lawsuit against ALF and other extremist groups in response to their harassment of its investigators. And the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act passed last year by Congress is a step in the right direction. But many more steps remain to be taken. The most important of these is that society must understand the connection between its medical care and animal research. They must understand that new drugs, medical devices and procedures cannot enter the clinic without animal testing. And they must know that animal research is heavily regulated and humane.

Federal standards require that all university-sponsored animal research in the United States—including the work of everyone discussed in this essay—is humane. By law, scientists who use animals must minimize any pain or suffering in those animals. They must also ensure that every animal has fresh water, nutritious food, clean bedding and species-specific enrichment activities—conditions far better than those experienced by animals raised for human consumption. Research projects that fail to do any of these things are not approved, and any scientist who violates an approved animal protocol risks the revocation of animal-use privileges. The USDA, which oversees animal research in this country, randomly inspects animal facilities, typically twice a year. And many institutions, including our own, volunteer for additional inspections by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care.

We hope that the rise in antiscience terrorism will be countered by a rise in public support for the value of scientific research. The alternative is greater human suffering. As media officials at UCLA said following the Ringach episode, "To use violent tactics aimed at halting animal research is to take away hope from millions of people with cancer, AIDS, heart disease and hundreds of other diseases."

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist