Around a conference table in the Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnesota, the Student Organization for Animal Rights (SOAR) plots its campaign against Marilyn E. Carroll, a psychiatry professor who feeds crack cocaine, marijuana and heroin to rhesus monkeys to study addiction.

There are 27 people here and not a patch of leather in evidence, but plenty of pierced lips and pallid faces. Just about everybody is superthin, supercommitted. When the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) raided two laboratories at the university in April, causing at least $700,000 worth of damage and delaying work on a cancer vaccine for brain tumor patients, SOAR enthusiastically supported it. One of the group's most vocal spokesmen, Kevin Kjonaas, acted as the front's press officer.

With a new academic year underway, the University of Minnesota is struggling with its newfound status as ground zero in the confrontation between animal rights activists and research scientists. Scientists and university leaders nationwide cite the college--which has become a gathering spot for animal liberationists--as the best argument for a big boost in federal protection of researchers against an increasingly violent animal liberation movement.

The FBI last week alerted scientists to heighten security after more than 80 university researchers working with monkeys--including some at Minnesota--received threatening letters booby-trapped with razor blades. A typewritten letter sent to one Harvard researcher said, "You have until autumn of 2000 to release all your primate captives and get out of the vivisection industry. If you do not heed our warning, your violence will be turned back upon you."

Student activists at Minnesota say last spring's raid--in financial terms, the ALF's most devastating raid ever on a U.S. lab--has had lasting value. Despite an ongoing FBI probe, there have been no arrests. "Everybody still talks about it--terrific," says Kjonaas, who contends that the school's incoming freshmen are better informed about animal rights issues than ever. Far from apologizing for the arson attack, SOAR has been buoyed by an infusion of volunteers and is stepping up its campaign against Carroll.

Matt Bullard, 24, of Little Rock, is in charge of planning the next protest. Not long ago, Bullard--who has been arrested "more than a dozen times" and who tags himself "veganwarrior" in his e-mail address--perched on a ledge of the Moos Tower, 18 floors up, for five days, above a 40-foot banner saying "Stop Animal Torture Now." Recently he and two others fasted in a cage outside the same tower--for 91 hours, one for every primate he says the university uses each year.

"It's important I be a spokesperson for animals," Bullard says. "I can't live with myself without doing it. I become guilty."

SOAR--the most active pressure group on campus and by all accounts the most prominent youth animal rights group in the Midwest--is sophisticated and hyperactive, often dominating the letters page of the campus newspaper and always finding new ways to keep its cause in view.

At the SOAR meeting, there are other items on the agenda--someone wants to find a home for a cat, for instance--but most roads lead toward the confrontation with Carroll. Aaron Arel recounts with disgust that when he was convicted of criminal trespassing at Carroll's house, the judge ordered him to pay $200 into a fund to help her research. Deliah Dunlap, who took part in that 1998 action, explains how students went to the professor's street, handed out leaflets, and told residents to keep their dogs on leashes "because there was an animal murderer in the neighborhood."

Minneapolis's progressive political climate has made the city a magnet for animal rights activists from around the country. For example, In Defense of Animals, a California-based group that says it has 70,000 supporters, is plowing funds and expertise into the campaign against Carroll, distributing a leaflet that pictures the researcher above the words "You are looking into the eyes of an animal abuser."

But in the face of such passion, opinion on campus remains confused. Just about everyone knows what SOAR is, but most of the 60,000 students are uncertain about the cause, and they are more likely to worry about parking than animal research. Most students seem uneasy about endorsing violent destruction of academic research, especially when the protests stem from a student group that has been granted office space on campus.

"I think they're crazy," says Julka Almquist, a pre-med student. "They are like skinny white guys with a really desperate need to have a passion for something. They probably come from money and have always had everything they needed, and they needed a cause and that was it."

But Mandy Toomey, a journalism major, says, "It's nice to see that there are people doing something about what they believe in--there's a lot of apathy on this campus."

The animal rights group is "very cliquey," says Matt Jennings, a history student and vegetarian who sympathizes with the cause. "You feel you have to dress a certain way, to be vegan. . . . I went to a few meetings and I didn't know what the hell they talked about the whole time."

Dick Bianco, the university's director of experimental surgery and the point man in the school's war of words with animal rights activists, doesn't think the movement is winning the argument. He said the ALF raid and SOAR's endorsement of it have alienated more people than they won over, a point SOAR concedes (though it argues that the attack energized others to join up.)

Minnesota is, after all, a state that passed a constitutional amendment last year to "forever preserve" hunting and fishing rights. After the ALF raid, the state increased penalties for releasing animals used in research.

The university has been experimenting on animals since 1892, when someone poked inside a gopher. These days, the Gophers are the school's sports teams. Minnesota researchers use 152,516 animals a year, and school officials are quick to note that its scientists' medical breakthroughs--including open-heart surgery, the pacemaker and the heart-lung machine--all relied on animal research.

But the federal government, says Bianco, needs to wake up to the challenge posed by animal rights extremism, provide more cash to support security and be more vocal in defending science. Bianco believes that SOAR is proof not that the animal rights movement is gaining influence, but that a small core of activists is increasingly prepared to support violence.

The animal liberation movement is forcing a change in the basic "culture of a university," Bianco says, from a place where "people freely exchange, interact and meet and discuss and go to lectures" to one of "security guards at the door, checking ID."

"I'm not trying to be paranoid and I'm not trying to be alarmist," he says. "But the tactics that they are using are escalating. . . . Are we going to have a dead body before we really do something? Before Washington does something, before the legislature does it? Is that what we're waiting for?"

Across campus, past the Mayo Medical Building, amid the labyrinthine subcity of animal research, the doors to Carroll's lab in Diehl Hall are locked. Nowadays, you need to swipe an electronic card to get through.

"You had trouble getting in this door, but that's only been for two weeks," Carroll tells a visitor. "Up until then, the last 25 years I've been here, anyone could walk in that door any time." Animal rights activists have targeted her for maybe 15 years, she says. They used to protest at the university once a year, on World Animal Day. Then they started coming to her house. In 1996, "they came again on Halloween night and dressed in Darth Vader costumes and tombstone-type things with Rest In Peace and my name and basically threatened to burn my house down."

Carroll got a restraining order against Bullard and five other activists, barring them from coming within 200 yards of her home. Residents in her neighborhood, Mahtomedi, also got a court to ban picketing there.

SOAR believes it can end primate research on campus, but the professor won't give up what she does, or where she does it. "I've seen for myself that the research has helped humans," she says, adding that she and her husband, also a professor here, "like our jobs, so we're not going to move because of them. And they would just follow us."

Her research--behavioral and pharmacological studies aimed at discovering what activities and rewards reduce animals' craving for cocaine--has won her praise and prizes, including a merit award from the National Institutes of Health and a rare 10-year grant. In trials at the University of Vermont, her work has been used to reduce drug use by addicts.

In one room of her labs--where ALF slogans still mar some equipment--48 rats sit in cages, some being fed drugs intravenously. Some of the rats have wheels, to see whether exercise makes them less likely to want cocaine.

She also works with 34 monkeys, all of which have names, such as Michael, Lucille, Mollie. In their small cages, there's a series of levers and nozzles. When a monkey sucks five times on a nozzle, a cocaine cigarette burns gently and the animal gets a dose of the drug. Some monkeys smoke the cocaine, others take it with water; they get as many as 10 fixes every day. These trials can't be re-created with humans, because humans will cheat, Carroll explains.

Carroll says something about the monkeys that may sound surprising: "They're people. We even call them people. . . . They have personalities. They stay with us for their lifespan. . . . We do get attached to them, they are very different and they are really fun to work with. As you might have seen, they're kind of cute."

You won't hear such talk from Kevin Kjonaas. He graduated from Minnesota last summer but remains involved with SOAR. "I'm not an animal lover," he says. "I'm allergic to them. I don't like being around them at all. I can see animals being tortured and not get distraught--I think it's wrong, but I'm not distraught."

For Kjonaas, this is about something else: "It's an issue of justice for me, definitely."

One of Kjonaas's grandfathers was a farmer. The other was a butcher. His father is mayor of Dayton, the Minneapolis suburb where he lives, and vice president of a bank in downtown Minneapolis. His mother works for General Electric. In 11th grade, Kjonaas took a class on social justice. He started thinking about the environment, read Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation," boycotted McDonald's, went vegan.

When he got to college--majoring in political science, minoring in women's studies--he quickly joined SOAR and was arrested three times, once for forcing himself into Carroll's office and lying on her floor with other SOAR members, linked by bicycle locks fastened around their necks.

Kjonaas, like other members of the group, does not believe animal research is necessary to improve human health. But even if it were, that would not matter. "I don't care if it cures AIDS or cancer," he says. "It would be like somebody saying ultimately it was good that Hitler used Jews for all that scientific experimentation."

During his senior year, Kjonaas interned at the Animal Liberation Front's office in Minneapolis. When the ALF raided the university labs, Kjonaas ran the press operation. Despite his PR role, Kjonaas insists he does not know who the ALF vandals were.

To test his claim, the FBI raided his apartment, taking his computer and other possessions. Kjonaas has since headed off for Britain to spend six months with other hard-line animal rights activists in the birthplace of the ALF.

Undaunted, he says he will return. "Minneapolis has a history of activists going to the U.K. and coming back and being much more radical," he says. "We couldn't free the slaves without having a war."

CAPTION: "It's an issue of justice for me, definitely," says Kevin Kjonaas, in the Student Organization for Animal Rights office at University of Minnesota.