HUNTINGDON, England -- Greg Avery was a small-time activist on the fringes of the animal rights movement here when, one day in 1999, he trailed a truck full of cats from a breeding farm to its destination: the gates of Huntingdon Life Sciences, Britain's largest animal research laboratory.
Suddenly, he recalls, it came to him: Why focus on one little cat farm when you could declare war on a major publicly traded company that experiments on thousands of animals each year?
Activists protested in Trenton, N.J., last year before members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty were indicted for "animal enterprise terrorism."
(Martin Griff -- The Times Of Trenton)
Over the next five years, the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign, known as SHAC, brought Huntingdon to the edge of bankruptcy and forced the company to cease trading on the London Stock Exchange and move its corporate headquarters to New Jersey. Activists with clubs assaulted two of its senior executives, while dozens of other employees reported harassment ranging from damage to their property to threatening phone calls and false allegations of pedophilia.
The campaign spread to the United States, where a federal grand jury in Newark last May indicted SHAC USA and seven individuals on charges that included violation of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. The trial is scheduled for June.
The campaign against Huntingdon -- a company with 1,400 employees and $120 million in annual sales -- is the longest, most aggressive and most ambitious that the militant wing of the animal rights movement has ever conducted. It marks an escalation in tactics and a new internationalization of the movement, which to a large extent was born and bred in Britain and still follows the lead of British activists.
Proponents of animal testing argue that without it, most of the drugs and modern therapies developed to combat cancer and a host of other diseases would not exist. But animal rights advocates contend that testing is inhumane and largely unreliable. For activists such as Avery, testing is nothing less than mass murder.
The key to strangling Huntingdon, says Avery, has been to focus on harassing its suppliers and customers -- ranging from the bank that lent it money to the caterer who supplied its cafeteria food. "We decided to hit companies who don't need Huntingdon but Huntingdon needs them," he said. "These are banks with tens of millions of pounds -- why risk their reputation for some crappy little company? If they wouldn't make a moral decision, we would force them to make a financial one."
Brian Cass, Huntingdon's managing director, said his company has survived the onslaught and is back on its feet. But Avery, who insists that he and his supporters operate within the law, contends the campaign is well on its way toward driving Huntingdon out of business within the next two years.
Avery, 36, has waged his campaign with just a handful of paid organizers, a few dozen dedicated volunteers and a support system of several thousand sympathizers utilizing a network of cell phones and Web sites. "It's very much a David and Goliath thing," he declared.
But in this war of attrition, it's hard sometimes to tell David from Goliath.
An Obvious Target
On a crisp but sunny autumn Wednesday, Gavin Medd-Hall, 40, an unemployed computer technician, led a band of five protesters on a journey south of London. Over the course of the day, they visited three companies that supply services to Huntingdon or carry out animal research for it on contract. At each stop they unfurled a 10-foot-long vinyl banner with a color photo of a terrified cat strapped down for experimentation.
Outside the local offices of Fujisawa Healthcare Inc., a Japanese drug manufacturer, the protesters pulled out loudspeakers from a backpack and began their harangue. "Five hundred animals are dying every single day in a painful medieval torture chamber," intoned one of them. "You have blood dripping from your hands, Fujisawa, because of your disgusting lust for money and profit."
Huntingdon, which conducts experiments on up to 75,000 rats, mice, guinea pigs, cats, dogs and monkeys every year, is an obvious target. Two hidden-camera investigations in the 1990s uncovered deliberate abuse of animals by staff members in England and the United States. Company officials say that the incidents were isolated and that strong safeguards are in now in place to ensure they don't recur.
Huntingdon operates two labs in England and another in New Jersey that test new drugs, shampoos, food products and industrial chemicals on animals. The company produces toxicology, metabolic and other studies for pharmaceutical companies around the world that by law must conduct such studies before receiving product approval.