The Animal Zealotry That Destroyed Our Lab
IOWA CITY, Iowa
"Are you lying down?" my wife asked me over the phone. It was Sunday, Nov. 14 of last year, and I was just waking up in my hotel room in Madison, Wis., where I'd gone to visit my sister and her son for the weekend. My wife's question -- especiallyher urgent tone-- triggered a cascade of sickening thoughts. Soon, I was racing home to Iowa.
Although the pieces only came together over the next several days, the bare facts were these: Early that morning, at least five individuals had illegally entered the research facility at the University of Iowa where my colleagues and I, all professors of psychology and neuroscience, work. The intruders broke into offices and laboratories, dumped acid and other chemicals and destroyed equipment. They also "liberated" the animals -- primarily rats and mice -- used in our studies of such basic behavioral and biological processes as learning, memory, temperature regulation and sleep. One of my graduate students arrived at work early that morning and discovered, in bold red spray paint, the slogans that are the hallmark of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF): "Science not sadism" and "Free the animals."
With this break-in, my department had become thelatest poster child of the animal rights movement. After years of escalating attacks on research facilities in the United Kingdom, animal rights and environmental extremists have turned to North America, which is fast becoming a breeding ground for their type of violence. But because the number of individuals affected is still relatively small, most Americans remain unaware of the seriousness of the threats. As my experience shows, even among decision-makers, few are taking it seriously enough.
The care of laboratory animals isn't, as some seem to believe, an unregulated field. As scientists engaged in government-sponsored research, we must conform to an exhaustive array of local, state and federal rules. Nor are we unthinking about these animals' use. As scientists, we debate it among ourselves and with others, as all thoughtful individuals do when dealing with issues of life and death. What happened in Iowa, though, was not a debate; it was an assault.
For us, the break-in set off a chain of events that one might expect after an attack of such magnitude. Our unassuming buildings at the edge of campus were cordoned off as local, state and then federal law enforcement personnel descended. With the closing of these buildings, the daily lives of hundreds of faculty, staff and students were disrupted. Experts in the handling of hazardous materials spent weeks identifying and removing the corrosive chemicals that had been dumped inside.
The cost of the cleanup, replacement of valuable equipment and purchasing of new animals totaled in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Contrary to initial reports, relatively little data were lost (in part because the attackers seemed more concerned with smashing computers than erasing hard drives) although even small losses can have far-reaching consequences for research.
Instead, it was the human cost that was most devastating. Imagine the horror of walking into your office at work, as one of my young colleagues did, to find computers, books and personal effects (such as ultrasound images of your unborn child) soaked in acid. Then, imagine having to don a chemical protection suit for several days and sift through multiple 55-gallon drums filled with acid-soaked papers, photocopying those that are still readable as they crumble in your hand.
Unfortunately, the attack on the building is where our story begins, not ends. For what followed was a series of well-orchestrated harassments. First came the e-mailing of a communique to the media, detailing the crime and the rationale for targeting our facility and the individuals who work there. Each of us was singled out for derision; I was colorfully described as having a "famously deranged mind" because of my research on the similarities between the high-pitched squeals of infant rats and the life-sustaining grunts of human preemies in respiratory distress.
Some of ALF's statements produced the desired chilling effect: "Let this message be clear to all who victimize the innocent," the e-mail read. "We're watching. And by axe, drill, or crowbar -- we're coming though your door. Stop or be stopped." Later in that document, the brazen and indiscriminate nature of their threat was revealed when, after noting "the established link between violence towards animals and that towards humans," they listed "as a public safety measure" our names, our spouse's names, home addresses and phone numbers, as well as information about our students.
Next came the video. Several days after the communique, local journalists informed a group of us that a surreptitious delivery had brought a 50-minute videotape of the crime. Would we be interested in seeing it? Within an hour, two colleagues and I found ourselves huddled together in front of a small television set in a local newsroom, watching in dismay as these individuals -- clearly youthful despite being hidden behind hoods, masks and gloves -- paraded through our facility, smashing delicate instruments with oversize hammers and transferring rats and mice to plastic cages. It was particularly difficult for me to watch as my infant rats, along with their mothers, were thrown together with several other adults, knowing (as these animal "liberators" apparently did not) that cannibalism of the young was the likely outcome. There was no video of that.