The Animal Researcher who Refused to Hide

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) highlights a recurring theme in the struggle between researchers engaged in responsible, legitimate scientific study of animal subjects and critics of that research. That is, an open willingness of a few fanatical elements within the animal rights movement to embrace violent acts and an effort of more “moderate” elements to personally distance themselves from the perpetration of violence, while tacitly justifying it, in the same breath.

Jerry Vlasak, spokesperson for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, is quoted:

If Jentsch won’t stop [using animals in his research] when you ask nicely, when you picket in front of his house, or when you burn his car,” says Jerry Vlasak, a spokesman for underground animal-rights groups, “maybe he’ll stop when you hit him over the head with a two-by-four.”

This chilling statement, while steeped in hatred and sociopathy, is not surprising. Mr. Vlasak has created a cottage industry around making such statements, likely because of the notoriety and public attention he receives when he makes them. The repetitive nature of his open embrace of such threats of harm belie the fact that he really has little else of any merit to add to the discussion of the ethics and science of animal-based research.

What is increasingly noteworthy, however, is the willingness of self-identifying non-violent activists to justify, explain away or apologize for the violent acts used to intimidate researchers.

In February of 2010, Pro-test for Science joined together with a student animal rights organization, Bruins for Animals, to host a civil dialogue on the science and ethics of animal-based research. Despite our attempt to build a rational and open discussion with the group, the Chronicle reporter indicates that Bruins for Animals:

does not endorse violence, but Kristy Anderson, who founded it in 2004, says she understands the anger behind the attacks on researchers and wouldn’t be surprised if, sooner or later, a scientist got hurt.”

If animal rights activists feel that they are being moderate when they do little more than refuse to “endorse violence”, they are deluded and wrong. Moderation and civility involves the repudiation of violence – a far cry from the poorly veiled attempt to pin the blame for animal rights extremism on researchers who are doing nothing more than engaging in legitimate, ethical and legal research intended to save life.

Robert Jones, a philosophy faculty member at CSU-Chico, restates Ms. Andersen’s take on extremist violence when he tries to explain their position.

  They believe what you are doing is morally wrong, and they feel disempowered to stop it,” he told Mr. Jentsch.”

What the author of the Chronicle article did not describe is his unwillingness to say that what animal rights extremists are doing to scientists is wrong, or – for that matter – his unwillingness to criticize similar efforts by anti-abortionists like Operation Rescue or anti-gay hate groups. One only has to stop for a moment to realize just what Ms. Andersen and Mr. Jones are really saying: if animal researchers, abortion providers or people practicing their sexual preferences in private make you mad enough, it is only understandable that you might turn around and hurt them; if one feels powerless to stop perceived unacceptable and immoral behavior of others, “any means necessary” is an unfortunate but expected consequence.

The parallels between elements within the animal rights movements and the hate mongers from the religious right are revealed in these statements. All these groups involve zealots who hold a point of view that they believe is uniquely enlightened. Each has a self concept that incorporates moral superiority and purity of vision. All believe that those who violate their moral framework are sinners, and that they are entitled to mete out justice in turn.

So, what happens when a group like this sets their sights on you because of your job and/or characteristics? Will others turn away and “understand” the violence and hatred directed at you?

Or will we all, as members of a civilization of rational human beings, come together and say – once and for all – that harassment, intimidation and threats are unacceptable and must be stopped? And, more importantly, will we start to combat violence and confront extremism now, before it finds its way to the door of others?

David Jentsch