Activists upping ante in bid to disrupt animal-based research
|By Lisa Eckelbecker TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF|
Stanley D.T. White’s business sits amid the rolling hills of Hardwick, far from Massachusetts’ bustling cities and business centers.
But that isolation did not insulate him or his company, Capralogics Inc., from a middle-of-the-night raid on Sept. 6 by people claiming to be animal-rights activists intent on disrupting Capralogics’ biomedical business. In fact, the perpetrators’ theft or release of 23 rabbits put Capralogics smack in the middle of an ongoing drama between scientists and sometimes-secret cells of individuals determined to end research on animals.
For Mr. White, the Capralogics president who felt he was operating Capralogics in an ethical manner and in a safe place, the raid on his New Zealand white rabbits was a shock that has him rethinking security measures and questioning whether his industry is facing a time of greater danger.
“We’re still ticking, and we’ve dusted ourselves off and we’re moving forward,” Mr. White said. But “it’s a different world. This is a case of me wondering if the ground rules have changed.”
The answer may be yes. Recent convictions of some animal activists appear to have energized other followers of groups that the government considers extremist.
A spokeswoman for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which posted pictures and an account on its Web site purportedly from the Capralogics raid, said the government’s crackdown, in turn, is driving activists deeper underground and away from legal actions. Advocates for scientists, meanwhile, are pushing for tougher laws.
“Congress, specifically, and I think the public, generally, is very concerned by the escalation of these attacks, particularly the manner in which they’re conducted, particularly the harassment to the point that people fear for their safety and the safety of their families,” said Frankie L. Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for responsible animal research. “I don’t think the extremists are a lot of people, but they’re aggressively hostile.”
It’s impossible to be sure how many animals are used in research in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 1.1 million animals were used in 2004, the lowest total in 31 years, according to the most recent data available. That included 89,031 animals in Massachusetts. But the USDA, which regulates and inspects animal facilities, does not count mice and rats, which some researchers estimate may represent 90 percent or more of all animals used in research.
Researchers use animals when developing new treatments or medical devices because the experiments answer questions about what a drug or device may do to the body, but also what the body will do to the drug or device. Under U.S. law, institutions that do animal research must create an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee to evaluate the research.
“We need to understand more and make medical advances for humans and animals, and one of the primary ways to do that is to use animals in research,” said Dr. Karl A. Andrutis, director of the teaching and research resources division and the attending veterinarian to all animals used in teaching and research at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Grafton. Although some people disagree with that on a philosophical basis, he said, “I think there have been enough advancements made to justify the use of animals.”
Advocates point to Nobel Prize-winning work on viruses, genes and organ transplants that used everything from worms to dogs. But for more than 40 years, researchers have also been pressed to replace, reduce and refine their use of animals, an agenda known as “the three Rs” that was first articulated in the 1959 book, “The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique.”
The three Rs, which in 1993 were woven into a law covering National Institutes of Health activities, calls on scientists to work smarter so they replace animals with other tests, reduce the numbers of animals used and refine procedures to minimize pain and distress. Scientists say that for the most part, the best research happens when animals are free of pain and fear.
“I believe that the awareness that the three Rs has created has had an impact, and clearly the animal advocacy world has been raising awareness in the scientific community,” said Dr. Alan M. Goldberg, a toxicology professor and director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. “Reduction and refinement indicate that animal use is still necessary and appropriate. It’s just, let’s do that in the most appropriate way, get the most out of the experiment.”
Some advocates for animals, however, say the three Rs are tools and the ultimate goal remains the elimination of all harmful animal research.
“Given the current polarization on these issues, the sensitivity surrounding them, some people read that and think we want politicians to declare animal research illegal tomorrow,” said Martin L. Stephens, vice president of animal research issues for the Humane Society of the United States. “This is a long-term view that will be realized largely through the three-Rs approach and technological innovation.”
Animal activism is nothing new. Massachusetts passed one of the earliest U.S. laws against animal cruelty. But some activism has become more destructive and intimidating.
Both the Animal Liberation Front and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, or SHAC, came to the United States after launching in continental Europe and the United Kingdom. The Animal Liberation Front claims to have no centralized organization and describes its activists as people who work anonymously alone or in small groups to release animals, damage property and disrupt businesses and institutions without causing harm to animals or people. SHAC has focused on action against Huntingdon Life Sciences, a company that performs animal testing.
The FBI, in congressional testimony, has designated “extremist movements such as the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty” as one of the nation’s most serious domestic terrorism threats.
On its Web site, the Animal Liberation Front Web offers tips on how aspiring animal activists can get started.
“That’s easy,” one account on the Web site says. “Come up with your own plan! Really. It’s not as hard as you think.”
Tips include suggestions on whom to admit to a cell, how to keep funding secret, how to scout a target and develop an escape strategy, and the importance of briefing donors on racketeering and terrorism laws.
Camille Hankins, a spokeswoman for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which she said is separate and unrelated to the Animal Liberation Front, bristles at the description of animal-rights activists as terrorists.
“When you say that, it depends on whose point of view you’re looking at it from,” she said. “From the animal’s point of view, the terrorists are the people holding the scalpel.”
Some in the research community say animal-rights extremists have staged protests at individuals’ homes, vandalized cars and houses, and threatened companies and people that do business with targeted researchers. In one of the most notorious cases, a managing director of Huntingdon Life Sciences was attacked in 2001 outside his English home by three people wielding bats.
More recently, a University of California at Los Angeles researcher said in August he was abandoning his research on primates because of harassment by animal-rights activists. Activists attempted to firebomb a different UCLA professor’s home.
Earlier this year, six people labeled the “SHAC 7” were convicted in New Jersey of terrorism and Internet stalking under the Animal Enterprise Terror Act. The individuals who claimed responsibility for the Capralogics raid said online that they did so in solidarity with the SHAC 7.
Although convictions might seem likely to deter further actions, Ms. Hankins said things may not play out that way.
“This kind of thing has a chilling effect on above-ground activity,” she said. “A good number of people are going to look to go underground. Why put yourself in a position where you’re a visible target of the government?”
On the other side, some are advocating for even tougher tools for law enforcement. The Foundation for Biomedical Research is backing legislation that would tighten rules about interstate activity, legislation the Humane Society opposes partly because its says it threatens legitimate advocacy. Congress also gave law enforcement additional wiretapping powers for animal activism investigations when it reauthorized the Patriot Act.
“Extremists are everywhere. They do strike. It’s up to law enforcement to protect these research labs,” said Dennis L. Guberski, chairman of Biomedical Research Models Inc. of Worcester, which develops rats for research, including rats used in studies on childhood diabetes. Activists “have the right to disagree. They do not have the right to be extreme.”
In Massachusetts, institutions have supported their researchers, but some scientists who work with animals prefer to keep a low profile, said Alan B. Dittrich, president of the Massachusetts Society for Medical Research. Yet regulatory oversight of labs means that some information about animal research is publicly available on the Internet and through Freedom of Information requests.
“Rather than sort of exposing themselves, they just stay below the radar,” Mr. Dittrich said. “But the truth is, if you work with animals in research or in production and an activist wants to damage you, they’ll find out about you.”
Mr. White of Capralogics said one of the painful aspects of the raid on his business was that he has long argued that his humane treatment of animals gave him better-quality products.
Capralogics produces polyclonal antibodies for researchers and diagnostic products. Scientists send substances such as proteins to Capralogics, and workers inject the immunogens into rabbits, sheep or goats. Over time, the animals build up antibodies in their blood to the foreign immunogen. Capralogics workers then take blood from the animal, remove the antibodies from the blood and purify them. Red cells can be transplanted back into the animals.
Mr. White thinks a soured business relationship with a UK entity may be behind the raid on his property, which he said the FBI is investigating. But he is revamping security at his sprawling farm, where goats and sheep wander through pastures and barns.
“You end up making a series of compromises and making the most prudent decisions,” he said. “It has changed a lot of little things. Right now it’s down to personal security. It’s one thing, business is business. But now I have to worry about my kids.”
The Animal Liberation Front’s Web site suggests its followers are committed, even if their acts do not stop animal research.
“We have to look at every individual action as a steppingstone to a final solution,” said Ms. Hankins.
Contact business reporter Lisa Eckelbecker at email@example.com.