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The British terror invasion

From The Scientist

Some European imports have never been welcomed with open arms in the United States, particularly in these days of EU trade wars and Freedom Fries. The rabid tactics increasingly used by a hard core of animal-rights extremists must rank among the least welcome trends to cross the Atlantic in recent times.

A clear sign that something new was afoot came in early June during the Biotechnology Industry Organization meeting in San Francisco. "Animal and ecological rights groups," said FBI special agent Philip Celestini, "are now the country's leading domestic terror threat." In a talk the Financial Times said left audience members shaken, Celestini said US animal extremists are now using "what we call the European strategy, because it was used first on the continent of Europe and quickly spread to the UK and then the US."

"The FBI was a little slow to respond to the threat," admitted Celestini. "But as we noted the escalation in violent tactics, we had no choice but to divert resources from other pressing matters. We now have agents in San Francisco and 35 FBI field offices nationwide addressing animal terrorism."

In Britain, people with even distant connections to animal-testing firms are all too familiar with enduring harassment, property damage, and violence at the hands of animal activists. In April they even formed a support group, Victims of Animal Rights Extremism (VARE). "People targeted in this way suddenly find that normal life becomes impossible," says a VARE spokesperson. "They need to talk to others who have suffered at the hands of the extremists to find out how they coped and lived through this frighening experience."

In Britain, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) is the group that most prominently focuses its attention on companies or individuals who have business relationships with the primary target of its fury: Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). When US federal authorities arrested seven members of SHAC-USA, an offshoot from the original group, in May, they charged them with conducting a campaign to "terrorize" employees of companies associated with HLS. The indictment says that SHAC-USA recommended the "top 20 terror tactics" on its Web site, including vandalizing property, firebombing cars, physical assault, spraying cleaning fluid into someone's eyes, smashing the windows of a target's home, and threatening to kill someone's partner or children.

Although FBI agent Celestini says the United States has been slow to react to the problem, the United Kingdom, which has struggled for years with violence from animal activists, still hasn't managed to get a proper grip on the situation. Piecemeal legislation to stop violence and intimidation hasn't prevented the few dozen real extremists from going about their nasty business. What some scientists and the drug and biotech industries want dearly is for the government to bring in a single, specific new piece of legislation, along the lines of the laws Britain uses against football hooligans.

Polls show that the majority of Britons understand the need for animal research, although most feel other options need to be exhausted first. With this in mind, the UK government decided this year to set up a center to focus on replacing, refining, and reducing the use of animals (the "3Rs"). Some British scientists fear that in doing this, the government is somehow giving in to the activists. Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, says championing the 3Rs is "like giving away the ace of spades before you start playing poker. It's selling out to the antiscience brigade by conceding that there is something intrinsically wrong with research on animals."

On the other hand, it seems that appropriate attention needs to be focused on minimizing the numbers of animals used in research and on improving their treatment. In this context, mainstream animal-rights groups are a proper and welcome part of a public debate on the issue. It is also vital that they are not tarred with the same brush as their extremist counterparts.



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