Animal-rights activists get personal in wave of California attacks

Last week's firebombing of a UCLA scientist's car is the latest in a string of incidents.

The recent fire-bombing of a university professor's car here appears to be part of a trend of animal-rights activists targeting the personal lives of researchers, rather than just the labs or companies where they work. The idea is to scare the scientists into reconsidering using animals in their research work.

Despite tightening laws, California saw an uptick in attacks last year with 21 reported incidents – of 36 nationwide – ranging from vandalism to firebombs, mostly targeting University of California researchers, according to data compiled by the Foundation for Biomedical Research. By contrast, the state saw just four or five such incidents the previous two years.

"The tactics [of animal-rights activists] have changed. They've gotten very personal," says Frankie Trull of the National Association for Biomedical Research, an organization that advocates for the responsible use of animals in research.

The latest incident occurred early last Saturday outside the Westwood residence of Dr. David Jentsch, a neuroscientist at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The professor's vehicle was engulfed in flames and destroyed, though no one was hurt.

The Animal Liberation Brigade claimed responsibility for the attack, accusing the professor of addicting monkeys to "methamphetamines and other street drugs." In a press statement, activists warned of more attacks causing "a lot more damage than to your property" if animal experimentation continued.

So far, UCLA hasn't backed down. The university added $25,000 to a reward fund last week, joining city and federal agencies in offering a total of $445,000 for information leading to those responsible for five incidents against university researchers.

UCLA is committed "to continuing legal and tightly regulated animal research that is critical to the development of treatments and cures for medical conditions," said Chancellor Gene D. Block in a statement.

The university has pursued legal remedies to safeguard researchers and their families, said UCLA spokesman Phil Hampton in a phone interview. These include obtaining court orders prohibiting extremists from coming within a certain distance of researchers' homes.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also signed a bill in August criminalizing some of the methods used by animal-rights activists, including entering researchers' homes and publishing their personal information to encourage violent crime against them.

Some observers trace the spurt in incidents to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act passed by Congress in 2006, which sharpened existing laws to curb attacks on people or organizations that use animals in their work. It raised penalties for causing bodily injury or fear of injury.

The latest incident may even be a response to the arrest a few weeks ago of four activists in California, the first under the new act, says Ms. Trull.

Some animal rights activists have said the new act inhibits First Amendment freedoms. But, Trull says, "[B]lowing up cars and sending death threats ... is not what the First Amendment had in mind."

Nevertheless, she acknowledges the latest incident may lead to more debate about state open-records laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Public-funded universities are required to be open about how research dollars are used. "To change those laws would be a monumental task," says Trull. "So, how do you redact enough personal information so as not to become a target, while not withdrawing the very information the public wants and needs?"

Meanwhile, some animal-welfare groups say violence against researchers could do the cause more harm. "The tactic backfires and instead of focusing attention on what the researchers are doing, it creates martyrs out of them," says Martin Stephens, of the Humane Society of the United States. The advocacy group adopted a policy against violence more than 20 years ago.

But Jerry Vlasak, a spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front, said in an e-mail that activists who had turned to violent protest had done so partly because years of peaceful campaigning had failed.

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