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Ground zero of labs vs. animal-rights activists

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 Animals."

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 buildings.

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 community.

"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 on you."

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 on animals.

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," she answers.

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.

Legislation criticized

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 on humans.

"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 of animals.

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 remotely violent."

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."

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