San Francisco — An underground group that is part of the animal-rights movement is under investigation for a rash of arson cases, thefts, and vandalism, law-enforcement officials say. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the group, believing that the arson falls under federal terrorist laws. San Francisco FBI agent Chuck Latting also said there is evidence the suspects crossed state borders to commit their crimes.
The group has claimed responsibility for striking at least 14 research laboratories, slaughterhouses, and butcher shops in California over the past year. In 1986, there was just one such attack.
``They started out breaking into labs and letting animals loose,'' a state Justice Department intelligence officer said. ``Now they're getting more violent, and I don't see any letting up.''
But Holly Jensen, a spokeswoman for the group, said ``raids'' are needed to rescue abused animals and document poor conditions. She likened their actions to the Boston Tea Party and the underground railroad for slaves.
``There are ethical and moral considerations that are more important than the law,'' said Ms. Jensen, a nurse in Gainesville, Fla. She said the group is an offshoot of animal welfare groups in England called the Hunt Saboteurs Association and the Band of Mercy.
The group caused $4.5 million in damages to California labs, said Sandra Bressler, executive director of the California Biomedical Research Association, which represents 34 research institutions and corporations.
She said 614 animals have been stolen, and that the break-ins destroyed work and papers on various medical ailments.
``These break-ins and vandalism have destroyed a lot of extremely important work,'' Ms. Bressler said.
But the group says it and affiliated groups have scored some major victories, including a 1984 raid that revealed cruel treatment of baboons by University of Pennsylvania brain researchers.
The revelation led to the suspension of a federal grant to the school and strong federal legislation regulating animal research.