Animal Protection > ALF Foes

    Jun. 05, 2005

    Pa. considers outlawing domestic terrorism
    It is one of only 13 states that have not criminalized violence by animal and environmental extremists.
    By Leslie A. Pappas

    "ALF is watching."

    That warning - scrawled recently on a Bucks County business - comes from the Animal Liberation Front, one of several special-interest extremist movements that the FBI recently labeled "one of today's most serious domestic terrorism threats."

    The group's latest target is Michael Hsu, whose greenhouse was vandalized May 26 after he applied to Richland Township to kennel monkeys for use in animal research labs.

    Other groups on the FBI's watch list include the Earth Liberation Front, an environmental movement that uses violence to stop what it calls urban sprawl, and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, a campaign targeting Huntingdon Life Sciences Ltd., a British company with operations in East Millstone, N.J.

    Six members of the Huntingdon group are scheduled to go on trial this week for allegedly vandalizing the company and harassing its employees.

    The FBI says that from 1990 to 2004, animal-rights and environmental extremists have taken responsibility for more than 1,200 crimes causing millions of dollars in damages. Such "direct action," as the groups call it, ranges from broken windows to arson to the release of thousands of research animals.

    Tomorrow, Hsu will testify before the state Senate Judiciary Committee in Harrisburg about an eco-terrorism bill intended to outlaw such crimes.

    Also planning to testify is John S. Ellis, executive director of the Pennsylvania Society for Biomedical Research. "If we want to keep up with medical advances in this country, we have to find a way to curb animal-rights violence," he said in an interview.

    This is especially important in Pennsylvania, a major pharmaceutical hub with no laws banning eco-terrorism, Ellis said. "We're one of only 13 states that does not have protection for research institutions in their laws."

    According to the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, a private nonprofit that accredits programs that use animals in research, 36 programs in Pennsylvania are accredited. More than 680 programs - among them Huntingdon's - in 26 countries are accredited.

    Between 17 million and 30 million animals are used nationally each year in animal research, 96 percent of which are mice and rats, said Ellis. Fewer than half a percent are primates.

    Groups such as ALF want to end such research, and members are willing to break the law for their cause.

    "We do call them domestic terrorists," said Jerri Williams, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia office of the FBI. The criteria are set out in the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act as "causing physical disruption to the functioning of an animal enterprise and causing loss of property," she said.

    ALF is hard to pin down because it is "a very loosely organized group. Anybody who wants to say that they're a part of ALF can say it," Williams said.

    ALF's guidelines, as stated on fliers and Web sites that appear to support ALF goals, are to "inflict economic damage to those who profit from the misery and exploitation of animals."

    Some of those Web sites include detailed instructions on how to vandalize property in order to maximize economic damage.

    "When there's no other way to stop this oppression and suffering and agony, that's when groups like Animal Liberation Front tend to get involved," said Jerry Vlasak, a spokesman for an organization called the North American Animal Liberation Press Office. The group is based in Canoga Park, Calif., and describes itself as an above-ground organization sympathetic with the underground ALF's cause.

    "We agree with what they're doing, but we are not doing it and we have no idea who is doing it," said Vlasak.

    ALF has no central leader or membership list. Cells of two to five members operate autonomously. Nobody knows how many members ALF has, Vlasak said.

    Vlasak says "terrorism is a completely inappropriate word" to describe ALF activities because no one at ALF hurts innocent people.

    "If you're not abusing animals, if you're not profiting from their abuse, you have nothing to worry about," he said. "If anybody is the terrorist, it's the guy who straps a monkey down in a restraining device and watches them scream in agony."

    Ellis rejects that description of animal research.

    "Most research doesn't involve pain at all," he said.

    The federal Animal Welfare Act requires researchers to use the least stressful techniques, Ellis said. Only about 6 percent of animals experience pain during research, and those are involved in pain studies, he said.

    For groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, which hopes one day to eliminate harmful animal research entirely, violent tactics like those of ALF actually hurt the cause, said Martin Stephens, vice president for animal research issues.

    "They tend to turn attention towards tactics themselves instead of the issues they're trying to address," said Stephens.

    The Humane Society instead fights for alternative methods of research, such as using computer models or petri-dish cultures, and it advocates reforms to reduce pain and distress to lab animals.

    In part because of that advocacy, some products like hormones used for insulin therapy are now tested only in test tubes, Stephens said.

    "We want to see the end of animals in harmful research. We're no different in that than most scientists," said Stephens, but "given that it's not going to go away, what can we do?"

    Contact staff writer Leslie A. Pappas at 215-702-7822 or lpappas@phillynews.com .