"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 -- especially her 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 the latest 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.
In the weeks thereafter, our attackers and their allies kept up their campaign. There were press conferences by local agitators, freedom of information requests, midnight phone calls, a well-publicized visit by a nationally known pro-ALF speaker whose message was that more attacks were needed. And then came the magazines. They started as a trickle, but soon my mailbox was deluged with dozens catering to every taste: Canoe & Kayak, Guns & Ammo, Fit Pregnancy, Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords. It's simple but ingenious: tear out those little subscription cards, apply a label, and send it in. No hassle, no mess. In total, nearly 450 subscriptions were directed at us, 160 to me alone. Funny? Perhaps, unless you consider how you would respond to such an onslaught, including the invoices and, ultimately, the credit agencies that followed.
When we learned that a Senate panel would be addressing the issue of animal rights extremism in May, we thought that some relief was imminent. Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League have been keeping an eye on the growing violence. Critics have pointed out financial donations, overlapping personnel and supportive public statements that raise questions about a possible relationship between above-ground groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and fringe groups like ALF. We hoped that such evidence had accumulated to the point that a concerted and bipartisan effort might finally affect their formidable fundraising apparatus. We were sadly disappointed.
We were encouraged that the president of our university had been called as a witness and that our experiences of the past several months would receive some high-level attention. Unfortunately, the hearing quickly devolved into a partisan disagreement. Incredibly, the senators seemed more interested in protecting their favored activist groups from scrutiny than in determining which groups actually posed significant threats to the lives and livelihoods of law-abiding citizens. Most galling were the comments of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, who seemed miffed that his time was being wasted on such fluff. Incredulous of the testimony provided by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), in which violent animal rights and environmental extremists were identified as among our most serious domestic terrorism threats, Lautenberg asked facetiously who the next target would be: "Right to Life? Sierra Club?" Then, he inexplicably proclaimed himself "a tree hugger."
I later made several attempts to contact Lautenberg about his comments, via fax, phone and e-mail, but never received a response.
I was a victim of a violent crime once before. While on break from college in the early 1980s, I was sitting in my parents' home in Chevy Chase reading a book when, suddenly, I looked up and found myself staring into the barrels of two snub-nosed revolvers. The intruders tied me up and robbed the house, then left silently. As traumatic as that event was, its effect on me was fleeting. I was angry, yes, but I did not feel terrorized. These home invaders clearly did not hate me for who I was or what I did. They did not issue a communique declaring that others should attack me. They did not release a video to force me to relive the indignity of the event. And they did not encourage their minions to engage in further harassments. Terrorists, no matter what their cause, seek political change through violence and intimidation. Is it essential that we label animal rights extremists as terrorists? Perhaps not, unless such a label helps us -- and especially politicians -- to better appreciate the seriousness of the threat and to marshal the necessary law enforcement resources.
Because the threat is serious. Today, scientists, clinicians and educators find themselves engaged in a seemingly endless string of pitched battles: over the teaching of intelligent design in our public school classrooms, over the availability of stem cells to treat degenerative diseases, over the rights of severely brain-damaged individuals to die. If we focus on the conventional politics that drive these conflicts -- right vs. left -- we miss the bigger picture.
In fact, what ties all of them together is a common distrust of and disdain for science, for empirically based medicine, for the value of evidence and critical analysis, and for progress in a free and open society. Moreover, and perhaps most alarming, is the adoption by certain groups of increasingly violent action to achieve their political aims. Indeed, the mounting acceptance of intimidation and violence within the anti-abortion movement eerily parallels the escalating tactics of animal rights extremists. Thus, the ideology and goals of these groups may align at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but their tactics have converged. As we know, a number of abortion doctors have already been killed, and some animal rights extremists seem to approve of physical violence as a tactic. It's only a matter of time before someone takes the next step. Whom will Lautenberg hug then?
Author's e-mail: email@example.com
Mark Blumberg is a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Iowa. He is the author of "Body Heat: Temperature and Life on Earth" (Harvard University Press) and the forthcoming "Basic Instinct: The Genesis of Behavior" (Thunder's Mouth Press).