Ross Clark says that if the government were to mount a real fight, we could defeat the animal rights terrorists — and prevent unnecessary suffering in the laboratories
Besides the hefty clunk of The Spectator on your doormat this week, you will shortly be receiving HMG’s advice on how citizens should cope with a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction. It tells us to stock up with bottled water, tinned food and a tin opener. It is a noble exercise, preparing people for the worst, even if the government’s last grim warnings about the dangers of weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a little wide of the mark. But it would also be nice to know that officials were taking such a proactive approach to the terrorist threat that already manifests itself daily and threatens the lives of thousands of innocent Britons: that from animal rights extremists.
This Friday the government plans to announce its new strategy on dealing with animal rights fanatics. It is very timely. Last week the construction company Montpellier withdrew from its contract to build a new animal research laboratory in Oxford after a campaign of intimidation by animal rights activists, which involved writing directly to shareholders warning them of ‘prompt action’ unless they sold their shares immediately; shares fell by 19 per cent. According to reports filed by the 80 companies represented by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, attacks by animal rights activists have risen sharply over the past couple of years. In the year to April, there were 173 reported incidents of criminal damage, up from 61 in the previous 12 months. A total of 135 company directors were threatened in their own homes, up from 77 in the previous 12 months.
Yet few of those who have been targeted have faith in the government to take effective measures to tackle the terrorists. One eminent public scientist, who declined to be named, says he expects little more than a tidying up of several existing laws ‘because the government is not certain how solid Parliament is on this. Ministers aren’t sure that they would not be presented with a huge backbench revolt ...if they introduced a dedicated Bill on animal rights extremism. A lot of MPs can’t separate the issue of harassment from animal rights itself.’
After all, the government has produced a fudge on animal rights extremism before. In 2001 it published a discussion document which inspired a small number of clauses in the Criminal Justice Act 2001, such as allowing certain company directors to keep their home addresses off the public register at Companies House. The terrorists simply targeted shareholders instead. ‘Every shareholder at Huntingdon Life Sciences has received multiple death threats,’ says its local MP, Jonathan Djanogly. ‘The result was that the company had to register in Maryland instead, in order to keep its shareholders’ names and addresses secret. There is intimidation on a massive scale. Just last week, two schools in Cambridgeshire were targeted because they had invited Huntingdon Life Sciences to their jobs fairs and the Rotarian who had organised the fairs had two cars destroyed. The government hasn’t got the bit between its teeth on animal rights extremists, possibly because of David Blunkett, who was recently revealed to be a patron of the Human Research Trust, which campaigns against animal experiments. When Jack Straw was home secretary he was very helpful on the issue of animal rights extremists, but David Blunkett has not responded to a single one of my letters on the subject.’
Earlier this week, David Blunkett appeared to change his tune when he announced that he was considering banning from Britain Jerry Vlasak, a Californian heart surgeon who in April told an American chat show, ‘I don’t think you’d have to kill too many researchers. I think five lives, ten lives, 15 lives, we could save a million, two million, 10 million non-human lives’ (he now says this quote has been taken out of context and that ‘all I am saying, in a historical context, [is that] violence has been used against us as animal rights campaigners and against the animals and is no different from us using violence on the other side’). But little else appears to have happened in tackling animal rights extremism over the past three years. The government’s responses to the 2001 discussion document refers to a ‘new ministerial committee chaired by the Home Secretary, set up to co-ordinate and drive forward action against animal rights extremists’. When I inquired about this committee, however, a Home Office spokesman was unable to name it, let alone tell me how many times it had met or what it had discussed. The government’s policing of the biotechnology industry, by contrast, has been enthusiastic. In four years, the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Committee, which enforces the very strict rules on animal experiments, made 121 visits to Huntingdon Life Sciences alone.
One who will be keenly awaiting the government’s response is ‘John’ (not his real name), the director of a small chemical company in the Midlands. Neither he nor his company has ever had anything to do with animal experimentation. ‘The only animals on my premises are the rabbits who run around on the grass,’ he says. But on a few occasions his Japanese parent company has commissioned work from Huntingdon Life Sciences, the great Satan of the animal rights movement. This, in the warped world of animal rights extremists, qualifies him for a personal vendetta.
‘It started,’ says John, ‘with a letter saying, “You support animal cruelty and torture at Huntingdon Life Sciences. You are a sick and evil pervert. You are now the Animal Liberation Front priority target. Your life is about to become a living hell until you stop abusing animals for profit, you vile deviant.” Then I received an email which said, “I would happily go to prison just for the satisfaction of stabbing an animal-tester to death.” I received a hoax parcel bomb, consisting of a carton of orange juice wrapped up in tin foil with coils of wire poking out. I received 12 home visits in the space of three months. The visitors set off fireworks outside my house in the middle of the night; people would drive past and blow sirens and horns. I’ve had the house spray-painted with the words “puppy-killer” and “scum”. Three hundred letters were sent to local homes giving my name and address and telling people that I was a convicted paedophile. Between 20 and 30 per cent of my working week is now spent dealing with animal extremism issues, and I don’t even work with animals.’
Remarkably, given the persistence of the extremists, not a single arrest has been made in connection with the attacks on John, his company and his family. ‘I’ve got CCTV footage of four people spraying slogans over my home but they have their faces covered up,’ he says. ‘The police have been great in helping me deal with the threats, but they tell me there is not a shred of forensic evidence on any of the letters, emails or the hoax bomb. The one area in which the law has helped me is in taking out an injunction against protests outside the company, under the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act. But my company could not have afforded to take out the injunction on its own; the cost was covered by our parent company. The extremists know small firms cannot afford to take out injunctions; this is why they are increasingly targeting them.’
John is not alone in experiencing the feebleness of the law in tackling animal rights terrorists. In spite of the massive intimidation, there were a mere 15 arrests of animal rights activists in the first four months of 2003. A spokesman for the Home Office is very eager to tell me that the figure climbed to 117 in the same period of 2004. (This is not neces sarily good news, since it was a tactic of animal rights extremists, employed successfully in the late 1990s, deliberately to get themselves arrested in order to be able to sue the police for wrongful arrest.) But when I ask for the number of convictions of animal rights extremists, he tells me to contact the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS tells me: ‘We don’t collect figures on prosecutions. It is the Home Office who do that and they shouldn’t have put you on to us.’
Dr Mark Matfield of the Research Defence Society, which represents those working in the field of animal experimentation, has also noticed a reluctance by government to divulge any details about convictions. ‘We think it is because they have gone down. We collect reports from around the country of cases where animal rights extremists have been convicted but we have seen very few of them recently.’
Animal extremist cases, says Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the BioIndustry Association, a trade body which represents 350 companies involved in research, have a remarkable tendency to fall through. ‘One company, Chiron, nearly managed to have protesters brought to court on a charge of aggravated trespass, but at the last moment the CPS dropped the case. The main witness was a temporary secretary at the company, who was scared witless about giving evidence. There were other witnesses who could have given evidence but they were not asked for statements at the time.’ In one of the few recent convictions, Paul Leboutillier and Paul Holliday were jailed for five years and 18 months respectively after making 1,000 nuisance calls to Huntingdon Life Sciences and a laboratory in Harrogate. But their sentences were halved on appeal.
The low number of successful prosecutions explains the £25 million bounty which has been offered by the National Association of Pension Funds to anybody who provides information leading to the conviction of extremists. ‘The government did wonderful things in supporting Huntingdon Life Sciences when no bank would give the company an account and no insurance company would insure it,’ says Mark Matfield. ‘It gave the company an account at the Bank of England. But the government’s record on legislation is poor. The government has introduced small bits of legislation but they have not all been very effective. For example, it amended the Malicious Communications Act to prevent animal rights activists from escaping prosecution by claiming that they believed what they were doing to be reasonable. But has anyone been prosecuted as a result? No. The Criminal Justice Act 2001 gave police the powers to move protesters on from outside people’s homes. But now they simply turn up for very brief visits and do nastier things. One of the problems at the moment is that there is no law against organising a campaign in which you provide the names and addresses of scientists and invite others to take action.’
The failure to bring prosecutions is all the more bizarre given the small numbers of activists who appear to be involved. Brian Cass, chief executive of Huntingdon Life Sciences, says that the police have told him that just ‘20 or 30’ people are responsible for almost all the attacks against scientists. Needless to say, the numerous animal rights pressure groups operating in Britain deny all knowledge of these extremists and profess to be against violence and intimidation. Nevertheless, many pressure groups are involved in activities, such as the naming of companies and individuals involved in animal testing, which they must know are aiding the growing number of attacks. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (Shac), which carries a warm endorsement from author Jilly Cooper — ‘I can only hugely admire the heroism, persistence, compassion and energy of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty Group’ — does what it must to avoid prosecution for incitement. Besides encouraging activists to ring client companies of Huntingdon Life Sciences, and listing their numbers and addresses, Shac’s website carries the words: ‘Please note that Shac does not encourage repetitive, rude or threatening phone calls and emails. Make your point politely.’ Nevertheless, the tone is menacing. ‘Phone, email and hold demos outside these companies,’ it says by way of introduction to its list of ‘targets’. ‘All the evidence is on the drop-down menus above ...the rest is up to you’. It adds, ‘In the right hands, these [picture of a mobile phone and a computer] can be just as effective as this [a picture of a metal rod].’
A stream of polite phone calls was far from the experience of one Japanese company when it was named on Shac’s website last year. ‘There were demonstrations and we received a lot of deliveries of animal faeces,’ one of its directors reported to a new self-help group, Victims of Animal Rights Extremism. ‘One of our directors was physically attacked on the way to the office. Two days before, his house was attacked at 2 a.m. and all the windows shattered. Very junior staff were targeted at home. Their cars were painted with paint-stripper. The slogan “you are a monkey-killer” was daubed on the walls. General staff, and the daughter of one of the staff, started receiving threatening letters.’
The director of an East Anglian company named on Shac’s website received a note scrawled on pages ripped from a spiral-bound notepad: ‘Hope you are feeling okay, well soon you won’t be. I’ve got Aids and I’ve been watching you at your workplace for several days. I live near Diss so it doesn’t take me long to get here. Be very careful of people walking up behind you because it would not take me very long to jab you with one of my infected needles ...If you feel a jab when you’re walking the street alone, don’t worry. It will only be me infecting you with Aids. Looking forward to meeting you close up, you scumbag.’
Not until the terrorist who sent this charming letter is behind bars will it be possible to hold a sensible debate on animal experimentation. In fact, if the animal rights lobby would adopt reason rather than resort to slander and violence, it would go a long way towards achieving its ambition of freeing animals from experiments. At present, the most pressing need for animal experimentation is for drugs companies to satisfy mandatory toxicology tests: these accounted for 80 per cent of the 2.7 million animal tests conducted in Britain in 2002. These tests cannot be eliminated, though there is considerable scope to reduce them (in fact the number of animal experiments conducted in Britain has halved over the past 30 years). I asked the Royal Society to suggest a neutral expert on the issue of animal experiments and it put up Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, the Cambridge animal behaviourist perhaps best known for his 1997 report into stag-hunting, which led to the banning of the sport.
‘It would be a disaster if experimentation on animals were to be banned,’ he says. ‘The experiments would simply be driven offshore. Experiments on live animals are vital for such things as understanding the pharmacology of the brain, which might for example lead to cures for depression or Alzheimer’s in 20 years’ time, and for studying asthma, the incidence of which is increasing. That said, there are molecular techniques being developed which will allow a lot of toxicology tests to be conducted on non-living mammals. Animals will still have to be used in the end, but many of the animals currently used in experiments will be saved.’