A group calling itself the Animal Liberation Front staged a Christmas Day raid on the Howard University Medical School laboratory and made off with between two and three dozen cats used in experiments, according to an ALF spokeswoman who says she flew in from Florida for the event.

The spokeswoman, who identified herself as Holly Jensen of Gainesville, said in a telephone interview here yesterday that she did not participate in the burglary herself, but was asked to make it public because "I have a passion and conviction about the rights of my fellow creatures."

One of the cats taken, she said, "had been allowed to die in that dark, damp, unventilated lab on Christmas Day without anybody noticing. Such insensitivity is unforgivable."

Exactly how many cats were taken remained in dispute yesterday. Jensen said 35, including the one feline corpse. Howard University said 28, and estimated loss from the break-in at $2,640, including property damage.

Two windows were broken out on the front door of the building at 520 W St. NW, according to Howard University spokesman Alan Hermesch.

Hermesch said each of the cats was marked with a collar and a metal Howard University tag. Twelve had just been purchased from a licensed supplier of laboratory animals and were in the process of a two-week quarantine, he said. The others were being used in various experiments, he said, but none had been at the lab more than 30 days.

Most of the experiments involved the effect of drugs on nerve transmission, Hermesch said. Past animal experiments at the lab helped discover a diagnostic agent for sickle cell anemia, Hermesch said.

Jensen said many of the cats were bone thin, and some had broken bones or surgical incisions. The dead cat, she said, was extremely dehydrated.

Hermesch said laboratory cats routinely are caged with as much food and water as they will consume. He said the laboratory is accredited by the American Association of Accreditation for Laboratory Animal Care, and maintains three licensed veterinarians on its staff.

"We make every effort to provide humane treatment," he said. "It's in our own interest to have healthy animals."

While many labs around the country have conditions the ALF deplores, she said, Howard's was chosen because "many people in the Washington area are sympathetic to the movement" and there are "a number of radical groups willing to risk jail for their fellow creatures."

The cats, she said, have been given veterinary care and are being given good homes with people who have been warned in advance they are receiving stolen property.