Anti-hunting activist Heidi A. Prescott went to jail yesterday, claiming it was a tough stand for the First Amendment and hoping, not coincidentally, that it would be a rallying point for the animal-rights movement.

Prescott demanded to be sent to the Montgomery County jail "as a matter of conscience and principle" in her fight for animal rights. Prescott, national outreach director for The Fund for Animals Inc., was fined $500 in April for interfering with hunters on the opening day of Maryland's deer-hunting season last fall.

She has steadfastly refused to pay the fine. At a 15-minute contempt-of-court hearing yesterday, District Court Judge Edwin Collier imposed the maximum 15-day jail sentence.

In a shaky, nervous voice, Prescott defended her position as an act of civil disobedience minutes before she was handcuffed, photographed and strip-searched before her entry into the Rockville jail.

"I remain convinced that my behavior . . . was appropriate," Prescott, of Gaithersburg, said in a prepared statement. "I did not physically strike, obstruct, yell at, or insult any of the hunters with whom I communicated. I simply exercised my First Amendment right to voice my objections to the cruelties of sport hunting and to walk on public lands."

Maryland Department of Natural Resources police arrested her for talking to hunters and rustling leaves with her feet, which may have scared off the animals.

Collier, who offered to postpone his decision for 30 days to give Prescott a chance to reconsider, said, "The court has to enforce the collection of fines and treat everyone the same. When someone refuses, it constitutes contempt of court."

Collier's decision may have propelled Prescott to celebrity status in the animal-rights movement. Prescott is the first animal-rights activist to be jailed in the United States on a "hunter harassment" charge, according to activists and a Maryland wildlife official.

Wayne Pacelle, the fund's national director, assailed Prescott's sentence as a "draconian penalty" that would serve to spur the animal-rights cause.

"The inordinately long sentence demonstrates the state is prepared to sacrifice First Amendment rights when it serves the special interests community," said Pacelle, who was at yesterday's hearing. "It is a privilege to hunt and a right to speak," he said. "The court favored a privilege over a fundamental right."

Prescott, in a telephone interview yesterday from the jail, said she "was real nervous. I don't have a feel for it yet." But she said she doesn't plan to waver. "I'm making a definite statement," said Prescott, 28. "I don't want anybody to pay my fine so I can get out. I would rather they donate the money to animal rights."

The soft-spoken Prescott said her involvement in the animal-rights movement has been a "gradual emotional, philosophical and intellectual decision."

As a youngster, Prescott said she and her family often visited relatives in Barre, Mass., who raised pigs and chickens. "I would never eat at their house," said Prescott, who 10 years ago became a strict vegetarian. "I couldn't reconcile playing with the animals in the spring and eating them in the winter."

Prescott, who studied to be a painter, said her activism has generated mixed reactions in her family. While her father, a counselor in Charlottesville, has been persuaded to become a vegetarian, Prescott said her mother "is not very supportive at all."

Prescott's sister Emily, 22, an animal-rights supporter, attended yesterday's hearing.

As a free-lance wildlife rehabilitator for five years, Prescott raised orphaned and injured animals and later set them free, she said. During this time, Prescott said she became familiar with Montgomery County's McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area, where she, along with 13 others, were arrested Nov. 25.

Other animal-rights activists applauded Prescott's stand. "She's very courageous to stand up for a principle," said Carol Breinig, who recently lost an appeal of her conviction for harassing bow-hunters last fall. "This is a real inspiration to go ahead with our fight."