Crackdown on animal-rights activists

New Jersey guilty verdict puts focus on extremists' tactics that Congress is trying to curb.

Animal-rights activists around the country - at least the most extreme - are becoming increasingly militant. And law enforcement officials and lawmakers are stepping up efforts to combat those who break the law.

These interconnected trends came to a head in New Jersey last week when an animal rights group and six of its members were convicted of inciting violence in their campaign to shut down a company that uses animals to test drugs and other consumer products.

The group, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), claims its actions constitute free speech. But federal prosecutors and the jury in a Trenton, N.J., courtroom called it harassment, stalking, and conspiracy - the first such conviction under the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act. The lab, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), the largest of its kind in the world, is based in Britain and New Jersey.

Antivivisectionists and other animal-rights proponents have been organized in the US since at least the mid-19th century. But recently, their most extreme members have become more aggressive.

Much of the focus for animal-rights supporters is on companies that produce animal products (mainly meat and fur). In their sights, too, are universities, hospitals, and other institutions that kill animals for medical research or product development. And they have been targeting anyone who does business with animal testers - financial institutions, contractors, and service providers, some with only a tenuous connection.

Activists' tactics include vandalism, personal warnings by e-mail and phone message, and other threats directed at family members - what's called "tertiary targeting."

"There really isn't a week that goes by that I don't hear about an incident," says Jacquie Calnan, president of Americans for Medical Progress in Alexandria, Va., which represents universities, pharmaceutical and biomedical corporations, and research organizations.

Most of those engaged in medical science say animal testing is crucial to find cures for disease and new devices meant to keep people healthy.

"Virtually every human being in the country has benefited from animal research," says John Young, a lab animal veterinarian and director of comparative medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

For example, recent research (including the human genome project) established that mice and humans are virtually identical in their genetic makeup. Specially bred mice are used to investigate ways to treat human diseases.

US research facilities use more than 1 million animals every year: dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, monkeys, sheep, and other farm animals. Add in mice and rats (more than 90 percent of all lab animals), and the total jumps to nearly 30 million, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

While most such animals eventually are killed, supporters of such research say avoiding animal suffering is a major consideration in their work.

"I don't know of a scientist or veterinarian who is not committed to the welfare of the animals," says Dr. Young.

Members of SHAC, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), strongly disagree. In some cases, they've infiltrated research labs to produce photos and videos that show otherwise.

"It's clear that if you look at the science we have much better ways of testing drugs to see whether they're going to be toxic or helpful in human beings," says Jerry Vlasak, a trauma surgeon in Canoga Park, Calif.

"Unfortunately ... the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] is still requiring animal testing, but they're way behind the science on this issue," says Dr. Vlasak, who's also a spokesman for radical animal rights activists that often announce their "direct actions" anonymously. "The scientific alternatives are out there."

That's a minority view in the medical community, and it is one that many lawmakers oppose.

Members of the US House and Senate are sponsoring the "Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act." It would toughen the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act by imposing penalties for veiled threats to individuals and families, economic disruption or damage, and "tertiary targeting."

Along with the recent indictment of ALF activists charged with arson and other crimes in Oregon and other parts of the West, the convictions in New Jersey are a setback for extremist animal-rights activists.

Still, the crackdown by the FBI and other police agencies has not slowed activists' efforts. One anonymous group just launched a website listing the home addresses of 2,000 employees from 30 companies doing business with Huntingdon Life Sciences.

"From CEOs to lowly sales reps, from Alabama to Hawaii, we've sniffed them out," activists are told. "Visit them often, and make the message clear: when you contract with HLS... you get us!"

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