Symposium Explores Animal Rights Tactics, Responses

On Saturday April 24, 2010, the American Physiological Society sponsored a symposium on Trends in Animal Rights Activism and Extremism. This event, attended by about 100 people,  was part of the Experimental Biology 2010 meeting, which was recently held in Anaheim, California. In introducing the symposium, session chair Bill Yates noted the importance of animal welfare, and the obligation of human beings to provide for the well-being, humane care, and judicious use of animals in research. However, some individuals reject the notion that research with animal models plays a critical role in advancing our understanding of biological processes and is essential to the search for cures. Some with this belief use tactics such as violence and intimidation to prevent researchers from conducting studies using animals. The intent of the symposium was to inform researchers about the tactics of animal rights extremists and what researchers and their institutions can do to protect themselves and their work.

Bill Yates opens the discussion

UCLA Senior Campus Counsel Amy Blum opened the symposium by explaining what kinds of protected information may be subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or state open records laws. Animal rights extremists have used information obtained under FOIA to target investigators for intimidation and harassment. While FOIA is a mandatory disclosure statute, certain kinds of information may be exempted from disclosure, such as privileged communications between attorneys and clients; trade secrets or confidential commercial or financial information; personnel and medical files; or information that might endanger a person’s life or safety. Researchers should exercise care in how documents and communications are written to avoid unnecessary disclosure of personal information or intellectual property. This effort may be “difficult in the short run” but will “make your life easier in the long run,” Blum said.

University of Iowa (UI) Attending Veterinarian and Office of Animal Resources Director Paul Cooper reviewed the 2004 Animal Liberation Front (ALF) break-in during which some 400 rats and mice were removed from the facility. Four individuals were involved in that break-in, and they made a video. It shows them dumping animals into plastic storage bins, destroying laboratory equipment; trashing researchers’ offices, and pouring acid over research records. Cooper noted that the animals in the storage bins were clearly having trouble getting enough air and probably died of suffocation. Based upon the ALF video and images captured by UI security cameras before and after the break-in, it was evident that the intruders included someone who was familiar with the facility. ALF break-ins have been rare occurrences, but Cooper’s message was clear: Every research institution has to take its security seriously because while if an ALF break-in can happen in Iowa City, it can happen anywhere.

David Jentsch discusses events at UCLA with symposium participants

David Jentsch, a UCLA professor of psychology and psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences, reviewed the history of animal rights extremism at UCLA. From 2001 to 2003, there were annual demonstrations where animal rights demonstrators criticized the university, researchers, and their work. “When they do that and you make no response, you are contributing to the decline in public confidence,” Jentsch noted. Starting around 2003, extremists began sending threatening emails and vandalizing researchers’ homes during late-night visits, which led to a climate of increasing fear. Extremists left a Molotov cocktail on the doorstep of one UCLA researcher—except that they actually left it at the home of the researcher’s elderly neighbor (Fortunately, the device failed to detonate). Another faculty member and his family were subjected to repeated home demonstrations and threats. The university’s only public comment during this period was a statement denouncing terrorism. This was consistent with views widely held across many institutions that they should not respond to accusations against researchers because that would add to the critics’ credibility. It was the university’s pursuit of this strategy of silence in the face of increasingly hostile and violent attacks that ultimately precipitated a crisis: In the fall of 2006, a researcher who was studying how the brain processes visual information announced that he would terminate his research program. He asked in return that animal rights activists leave him and his family alone. He delivered his plea in an email message to the North American Animal Liberation Press Office with the subject line “You win.”

Over the next couple of years, the University’s responses improved, however the activists’ attacks did not abate. In 2007, there was an unsuccessful attempt to firebomb one faculty member’s car, the home of another faculty member was deliberately flooded. In 2008, the door to the same individual’s home was set on fire; a commuter van belonging to the university was burned; and cars were vandalized in the driveway of a post doc’s home and at the home of a researcher’s neighbor. Finally, in early 2009, Jentsch’s car was firebombed in the driveway of his home. This “intensification to a climax of violence” demonstrated to Jentsch that the “strategy that the university was using wasn’t working and wasn’t going to work.” His response was to found Pro-Test for Science, an organization that subsequently staged the first major public demonstration in support of animal research in the United States.

The first Pro-Test for Science Rally was held April 22, 2009. The goal of the rally was to let the public know that “animal research is contributing to basic science understanding of physiology and helping us to solve an array of problems in biomedicine.” Although counter-protesters showed up to take pictures, Jentsch said that not only did this fail to intimidate the participants, it was “fair to say that everyone who came left feeling that there was something they can do” to support research. It should further be noted that since the 2009 Pro-Test rally, there have been no further violent attacks against UCLA researchers.

“Get ahead of the issue,” Jentsch urged. “Don’t wait.” He recommended that every individual scientist get into the habit of engaging the public about science: “Tell them what you do—be your own advocate.”

Hayre fellow Megan Wyeth emphasizes the importance of public outreach

Americans for Medical Progress Hayre Fellow Megan Wyeth spoke about public outreach for the early career scientist. Public outreach can take many forms, she noted, recommending that everyone work within his or her own comfort levels. She urged those who teach to cite the basic animal research that led to the breakthroughs in order to raise their students’ awareness of what animal research has contributed. “Tell people what you do,” Wyeth said. She suggested emphasizing that animal research is necessary for medical progress, that is irreplaceable for the foreseeable future, and that it is a humane and highly regulated activity.  This was a point that was appreciated by many attendees, including session chair Bill Yates who had earlier stressed the importance of developing good relationships with local journalists and conveying this positive message before a crisis occurs.

Alice Ra’anan

Director of Government Relations and Science policy

The American Physiological Society

Bill J. Yates

Chair, Animal Care and Experimentation Committee

The American Physiological Society

Public outreach is an important duty for all involved with medical research, though as Megan said it takes many forms. Allyson Bennett has discussed how scientists can become involved in debates and web-based advocacy , and organize community outreach programs, while Paul Browne has stressed the need for scientists and physicians to explain how animal research has contributed to the latest advances in medicine. There are many ways to improve public understanding of the importance of animal research to medical progress, but they can all be summed up by David Jentsch’s call to “Tell them what you do—be your own advocate”.

One response to “Symposium Explores Animal Rights Tactics, Responses

  1. Of course while Dario Ringach, the scientist who ‘delivered his plea in an email message to the North American Animal Liberation Press Office with the subject line “You win.”’, has not resumed animal research he has since become a vocal and effective advocates for animal research, and was a founding member of Pro-Test for Science alongside David Jentsch.

    It takes courage and determination to face down extremists who threaten your family, and Dario has that in spades. As more scientists in the United States are inspired by his example the extremists will be defeated just as they were by Pro-Test in Oxford.