|Ground zero of labs vs.
By Kirsten Scharnberg and Tim Jones, Tribune national
correspondents. Kirsten Scharnberg reported from Iowa
City and Tim Jones from Madison, Wis
Published June 9, 2005
IOWA CITY -- The shaky, amateurish video shows everything
in graphic detail: Four masked people break into darkened
university labs, pour toxic chemicals onto computers
and stacks of files, and release hundreds of research
rats and mice. They spray-paint walls with slogans such
as "Science not Sadism" and "Free the
The November break-in at the University of Iowa's Spence
Laboratories--an act for which there have been no arrests
but for which the group Animal Liberation Front, or
ALF, has claimed responsibility--is characterized by
university and law-enforcement officials as terrorism.
The incident has made the University of Iowa, a school
in the heart of one of America's most farm-centered,
meat-producing states, ground zero in a national battleground
over animal-based research at taxpayer-funded institutions.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, animal-rights
activists are protesting research getting under way
that uses pigs to measure the impact of police stun
guns. No violent incidents have been reported in Madison,
but officials there have increased security at research
Animal research labs have been targeted at the University
of Minnesota, the University of California, San Francisco,
Western Washington University and Louisiana State University.
And last month in Washington, John Lewis, the FBI's
deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, told
a Senate committee that animal-rights and environmental
activists resorting to arson and explosives are the
nation's top domestic terrorism threat.
In Iowa City, the break-in has unnerved the research
"All the people who work in animal labs are now
worried about the security of their labs and of themselves
and their families," said Joseph Kearney, the associate
dean for research at the University of Iowa's College
of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
"The actions of some of these groups who target
our researchers and our facilities are no longer a nuisance,"
he said. "It is no longer vandalism. It is terrorism."
The controversy comes as federal officials in Milwaukee
prepare to try a member of the Animal Liberation Front
charged with releasing hundreds of minks in northern
Wisconsin in 1997. Investigators say they hope the trial
will shed new light on the tactics of the extreme elements
of the animal-rights movement, some of whom have targeted
private labs as well as executives of companies that
do business with research labs.
Anti-terrorism law used
In New Jersey, law-enforcement officials are using
an anti-terrorism law this month against seven animal-rights
activists charged with harassing and vandalizing a company
that used animals in drug testing. Prosecutors said
the activists used threats, intimidation and cyber attacks
against Huntingdon Life Sciences employees, with the
intention of driving the company out of business.
The incident that set the tone for much of today's
rhetoric and tactics at universities where animal experimentation
takes place came in 1999 when a group that called itself
The Justice Department sent more than 80 letters booby-trapped
with razor blades to animal researchers at prestigious
schools across the United States. Some of the letters
claimed to have used blades coated with AIDS-infected
blood; one Harvard professor was told, "If you
do not heed our warning, your violence will be turned
The ALF boasted of masterminding the incident in Iowa
and issued the kind of threats to University of Iowa
faculty that have become increasingly associated with
the movement to end animal experimentation:
"Let this message be clear to all who victimize
the innocent: We're watching. And by axe, drill, or
crowbar--we're coming through your door. Stop or be
stopped," the ALF Web site warned before listing
the home addresses of the Iowa scientists who experiment
With the November lab break-in and threats as a backdrop,
the Iowa campus has ratcheted up security. The backgrounds
of graduate students who would require lab access are
being scrutinized, because many professors said they
believe the break-in may have been carried out by grad
students who applied to specific departments solely
to facilitate such an act. Security cameras have been
installed and guards hired, a strange sight in a low-crime
college town of 64,000 people.
The Iowa incident is estimated to have cost the school
nearly a half-million dollars, displaced about 170 classes
and, six months after the break-in, left a corner of
the campus blocked off by yellow crime-scene tape.
One campus group--the Iowa Law Student Animal Legal
Defense Fund--has brought several animal-rights speakers
to campus, including one just weeks after the break-in
who told the audience that animal experimentation was
akin to the enslavement of blacks and that if he had
to choose between saving a person or his dog from a
burning house, he probably would choose his dog.
Leana Stormont is the face and voice of the push to
stop animal experimentation at the University of Iowa.
She is the head of the Iowa Law Student Animal Legal
Defense Fund, and her business cards bear a quote from
abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a picture of a baby
pig cuddling with its mother.
Stormont, who just graduated from Iowa's law school
and has taken a job in the legal department of People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, gives
rational and reasoned answers to most questions: Would
she accept an animal experiment if it could be demonstrated
to her without a doubt that it might lead to a cure
for cancer? "I think I could be convinced that
at some point the benefits outweighed the costs,"
But like other critics of animal research, Stormont
argues passionately that most animal experimentation
is senseless. She says that with the advance of sophisticated
computer modeling able to mimic lab testing, it is no
longer necessary to use animals in most cases.
She rails against legislation that requires universities
to report publicly only on experiments on animals such
as dogs and monkeys but does not require that they report
the number of rodents and birds used in research. And
she argues that some of the most effective drugs--aspirin
and penicillin--were once almost scrapped because animals
did not respond well to them.
"I wonder how many cures we've thrown away because
it didn't work on a mouse," she said. "The
thing is, it doesn't have to work on a mouse. It has
to work on a human."
But David Skorton, the president of the University
of Iowa and a cardiologist who once did congenital heart
disease research on animals, disagrees adamantly. He
pointed out that some primates share up to 98 percent
of the human genome. And 90 percent of the genes linked
to diseases are the same in mice as in humans. Experiments
on mice have served as the foundation for some of medicine's
most crucial discoveries, such as the understanding
of cancer cells, he argues.
Skorton, a vegetarian who has advocated that scientists
experiment on rats and mice whenever possible to spare
monkeys, dogs, cats, pigs and other kinds of research
subjects, resents the tactics that such groups as the
ALF have used against universities.
"I refuse to let them elevate what they have done
to the level of `civil disobedience,'" he said.
"It's violence and it's illegal. I don't think
many people can understand how tough it is to be targeted,
to feel your safety and your family's safety targeted
on a national level, for the important scientific work
you are doing."
In Madison, John Webster, a professor of biomedical
engineering, is leading the research to run electric
shocks through anesthetized pigs to measure the impact
that police department Tasers or other stun guns have
"I've been called a cruel torturer akin to Hitler's
henchmen," said Webster, whose animal research
during his 38 years at the university has included studies
of cancer and cardiovascular disease. He has been working
with pigs for at least nine years, he said, but his
research never has provoked a torrent of angry letters
and e-mail--until now.
"People think I have a room full of little pigs
running around and I'm shooting them with Tasers,"
said Webster, noting that the pigs will be anesthetized
before the experimentation.
University officials have bolstered building locking
systems, changing from keys to electronic security cards.
Cameras have been set up at strategic locations, with
round-the-clock video recording.
"No one is fearful, but they are watchful,"
said Eric Sandgren, a veterinarian and chairman of the
university committee that oversees and governs the use
Wisconsin's Madison campus is widely recognized as
a petri dish of political dissent, most notably during
the Vietnam War. Often overlooked is the ebb and flow
of animal-rights activism, which started in response
to primate research conducted on campus in the 1950s
and '60s by professor Harry Harlow, the namesake of
the existing primate center.
The stun-gun research has proved to be a magnet for
controversy because the weapons, which eject darts with
a 50,000-volt electrical charge, have been linked to
the deaths of 103 people in the U.S and Canada from
June 2001 to March of this year, according to a report
from Amnesty International.
Terry Young, an epidemiologist and professor of population
health sciences, noisily withdrew from a research project
with Webster in March after learning that Webster was
leading the stun-gun study.
`A very sensitive nerve'
"It hit a very sensitive nerve," Young said,
arguing that the study is unnecessary and would be cruel
to the pigs.
Animal-rights groups have featured the pig controversy
on their Web pages. Protesters have gathered on campus
to speak out against the pig research, but there has
been no Iowa-caliber destruction of facilities or break-in.
"It bothers me that activists feel that they have
to go to these great lengths to get their voices heard.
. . . I find that very unfortunate," said Lori
Nitzel, who directs the Alliance for Animals, a Madison-based
animal advocacy group that opposes the research. "We
have nothing to do with property destruction or anything
PETA dismisses suggestions that university researchers
might be forced to take their research offshore.
Violence on campuses "certainly isn't an epidemic,"
said Mary Beth Sweetland, senior vice president of PETA.
"Academics like to throw out the specter of an
epidemic just so people will rally to their side."