Attacks force universities to beef up staff security

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Razor blades in the mail. Leafleting at children's soccer games. Broadcasting researchers' home addresses. And in Santa Cruz over the weekend, firebombing scientists' home and cars.

Borrowing strategies used by anti-abortion extremists, some radical animal rights activists are increasingly taking their rage to scientists' doorsteps. That has forced universities to adopt tougher security steps to protect their staff and led to researchers retreating into secrecy, limiting details about their science, in a field which relies on sharing information.

"It has dramatically changed the way we run our lives,'' said P. Michael Conn, associate director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, who has studied animal rights extremists for 15 years and wrote the book "The Animal Research War.''

Among other threats, Conn received a letter with a razor blade glued inside, concealed so that it could slice his thumb upon opening. He said other letters have contained the threat: "If you don't quit . . . something bad will happen to you.''

"Until recently, universities and professional societies have ducked out of this because they don't want to be lightning rods for extremists,'' Conn said.

That's changing.

In February, after activists set off an incendiary device at the home of University of California-Los Angeles researcher Edythe London, the school paid for security guards and alarm systems for off-campus homes. UCLA also sends campus police to off-campus demonstrations.

Earlier this year, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge approved a restraining order sharply limiting the contact between animal rights activists and researchers. It creates a 50-foot buffer around targeted scientists' homes during the day and a 150-foot bubble at night, according to spokesman Phil Hampton.

Since then, "far fewer incidents of harassment have been directed at our faculty,'' he said.

An effort to make it a misdemeanor to intimidate academic researchers by entering their property had stalled in the state Assembly.

The University of California has begun withholding public records that detail how animal research is done and what scientists hope to learn, saying such disclosure leads to attacks, according to the Sacramento Bee. Among the records UC has withheld recently are daily health care logs for monkeys, postmortem exams and research protocols that describe how studies are designed. UCLA is refusing to disclose how many non-human primates in experiments.

Such restrictions are part of the law in Utah. The Utah State Records Committee recently upheld the university's refusal to release names of animal research employees. And Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, home to the University of Utah, passed ordinances restricting targeted residential demonstrations within 100 feet of homes.

At the University of California-Berkeley, activists have harassed professors at their homes late at night and even leafleted the soccer game of a researcher's child, according to spokeswoman Marie Felde.

UC-Berkeley's new Li Ka-Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences - which would expand the university's animal lab - is also under attack. One Web site lists the names and addresses of the general contractor, architect and scientists associated with the project.

On Monday, officials offered a $30,000 reward for information on the Saturday attacks that left one scientist fleeing his smoke-filled home with his young family, and another researcher with a charred car. About 150 people attended a protest at the University of California-Santa Cruz to denounce the violence.

So far, no one has claimed responsibility for Saturday's firebombings, the most violent attack yet of any UC employee. Designated an act of domestic terrorism, the case has been turned over to the FBI.

The FBI said it was alarmed by the brazen nature of the attack. "This is something that put people's lives in jeopardy,'' said Joseph Schadler, an FBI spokesman. ""This is a completely different level of crime.''

Jerry Vlasak, a spokesman for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, defended the use of force, saying it has always been a tool in social justice movements.

"Perpetrators must be stopped using whatever means necessary, and the use of force is a morally righteous tactic; furthermore, it is the most likely tactic to be effective in halting these atrocities,'' he said in an e-mail.

But others in the animal rights community condemned the firebombings, saying they would backfire and set the movement back.

"We're against violence to any species, including our own,'' said Dr. Elliot Katz, a veterinarian and president of In Defense of Animals in San Rafael. "With a broad brush, it makes everyone who cares about animals look like an extremist, and that plays into the hands of people who exploit them. They are able to discredit what we do.''

Such attacks, however, can be effective, possibly deterring scientists from pursuing their work.

"This sort of thing has a very chilling effect on researchers and potential students, and thus on the entire enterprise of basic medical research,'' said one Stanford University researcher. He requested anonymity due to fears that he, too, would be targeted.

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(c) 2008, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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