About ALF > History

Militant Protesters� �reign of terror�
Fighters for animal rights

The British government has just announced tough legal measures intended to stop what the Home Office calls a �reign of terror� by some militant animal rights� protesters. It is trying to protect both Huntingdon Life Sciences, Europe�s largest animal testing laboratory and centre of a four-year-battle with worldwide consequences, and the construction of a research facility at Oxford University.

By Cedric Gouverneur (Translated by Julie Stoker)

ROBIN WEBB, impeccably turned out in a suit of synthetic fibres, looks more like a relaxed pensioner than the alien who liberates animals from zoos as played by Brad Pitt in the movie Twelve Monkeys (1). But Webb, whom we meet in a Nottingham pub, is the official spokesman of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a clandestine organisation being pursued by the anti-terrorist branches of both Scotland Yard and the FBI.

He is a former trade unionist who turned vegan (2) and militant one morning 25 years ago while walking past an abattoir. He claims that the ALF is invincible because the state cannot imprison an idea: anyone who acts to save animals or damage the property of animal abusers, by breaking windows or setting fires, can claim that action on the internet on behalf of the ALF. In return, the ALF will provide support if there is an arrest.

The ALF�s decentralised structure makes it difficult for the police to infiltrate or dismantle it. Webb, who was imprisoned for seven months in 1995, says that while the Irish Republican Army (IRA) also operates through independent cells, it has a centralised and identifiable command structure. But the ALF does not and there is no point in arresting Webb to keep him quiet.

Since ALF was set up in 1976, there have been some 200 activists imprisoned for thousands of actions. The ALF even claims "martyrs", one of whom, Barry Horne, died on a hunger strike in prison in November 2001. He had been sentenced to 18 years in jail for an attack on a furrier�s shop. Webb says he died in the name of the freedom of animals who are unable to defend themselves.

Britain has always been ahead in animal rights. The first association for the protection of animals in the country and the first law prohibiting their ill-treatment both date from the 1820s. Last year the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, which was founded in 1840, collected �80m (almost $150m) from 300,000 donors.

The animal rights� movement includes militants from all classes. The use of force by fringe elements dates from the 1960s. In 1963 the Hunt Saboteurs Association was set up in the south of England: Webb says the idea was to get between the hunters and hunted to save the prey and force the government to ban hunting. In 1973 a small group began setting to fire to hunters� vehicles, then extended their campaign to include animal testing laboratories and furriers. They called themselves the Band of Mercy.

Three years later the activists opted for the acronym ALF, since at the time "liberation fronts" were springing up in Latin America and Ireland. (Alf is also short for the name Alfred, which helps complicate telephone tapping.) The ALF takes the view that violence may be justified in the short term to obtain justice. Webb points out that in Britain the movement for the abolition of slavery and the suffragettes who asserted women�s rights both resorted to unlawful acts. Attacks and threats by ALF�s militants are designed to increase secur ity costs until animal exploitation ceases to be economically viable.

Hundreds of activists are prepared to break the law for the cause: smashing butchers� shop windows; attacking fishmongers to save lobsters from being boiled alive; setting fire to abattoirs and furriers; harassing circuses and zoos; attacking mink farms, despite the damage that the in vasion of these predators inflicts on native fauna; ransacking laboratories and farms that rear animals for testing; harassing employees at their homes, breaking windows and trashing cars (specific legislation to prevent these tactics is to be introduced); setting fire to refrigerated meat lorries. The ALF regularly claims similar actions in the United States and northern Europe.

Branded with a red-hot iron

Actions are sometimes more violent. In 1999 armed men kidnapped Graham Hall, a Channel 4 television journalist investigating ALF militants; they used a red-hot iron to brand the letters ALF on his back. In 2000 bomb threats against shareholders in Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) caused thousands of City of London employees to be evacuated. In 2001 the managing director of HLS and a company manager were attacked by hooded "commandos". In other incidents letter bombs injured a farmer and a six-year-old girl. People had letters accusing them of paedophilia sent to their family and friends.

The Animal Rights Militia and the Justice Department groups advocate violence against those who torture animals. Depending on the kind of action taken, activists can choose to claim it on behalf of one of these groups, or of ALF. Some 2,000 heads of businesses that might be targeted persuaded the government to allow their addresses to be removed from the accounts that are held in Companies House, the British commercial register.

The incident in which the young girl was injured (3) harmed the cause and activists are now being careful not to hurt anyone, according to a potential target, Mark Matfield, who is director of the Research Defence Society (RDS), a lobby group for animal testing. Matfield points out that intimidation is the protesters� main strategy. The only people to have died, besides hunger-striker Horne, have been two hunt saboteurs and a woman demonstrating against the export of live animals, who was run over.

The animal liberation movement has won notable victories over 30 years. It is almost impossible to buy a fur coat in Britain. Several farms that reared dogs and cats for tests have been econom ically ruined. In January 2004 Cambridge university was forced to abandon a planned neurological research laboratory that would have involved experiments on primates (4). A campaign to exert pressure on companies collaborating in the project was coordinated on the internet by Mel Broughton, a friend of Barry Horne; he has spent four years in prison for possessing explosives.

Over three years the Cambridge project changed from a simple laboratory to a fortress, its cost soaring from �24m to �32m ($45m to $60m). That was unacceptable to the university authorities and they gave up, to the dismay of the prime minister, Tony Blair, who is concerned about the development of research, and of Mark Matfield, who talks of a "black day for patients".

Broughton is determined to thwart a new research facility project at Oxford university. He explains that the authorities can cope with one demonstration a year, but not constant pressure on shareholders and suppliers. Contacted in March by animal rights� campaigners, the group BTP Travis Perkins withdrew almost immediately from the Oxford project. Last month two contractors, Montpellier and RMC pulled out and other major suppliers are reviewing their contracts because of fears of harassment.

The activists� chief enemy, Huntington Life Sciences, Europe�s largest animal testing laboratory, is still going strong despite activists� efforts over the past four years to breach its barbed-wire encircled fortress in Cambridgeshire, which they liken to a concentration camp. The managing director of HLS and b�te noire of the ALF for 20 years, Brian Cass, believes in what he does and defends animal testing because of benefits for patients. The centre uses 70,000 animals in tests for global industry every year. An HLS official says: "85% are fish or rodents. Dogs and monkeys account for only 1%" - that is still 700 animals.

All kinds of cruelty

In 1996 a journalist, Zoe Broughton, got a job as an assistant at HLS. She hid a tiny camera under her white coat. In March 1997 Channel 4 broadcast the result of her six-month investigation, a documentary, It�s A Dog�s Life. The public saw lab assistants hit beagles to take blood samples as colleagues looked on indifferently. The Labour party, which was then in the middle of an election campaign, withdrew pension fund money from HLS, and HLS clients broke contracts with the company. Two employees were fired and prosecuted and the authorities suspended for six months the licence that authorised the group to undertake experiments. The management team was dismissed and Cass, who was the former boss of the Covance laboratory, was appointed managing director.

HLS opened its doors to us. Their dogs seemed properly looked after. Most ran up to be patted, though one shook with fear at our approach. Their cages are clean and organised to allow them to socialise. The beagles are entitled to 30 minutes� walk a day - albeit in a corridor. The assistants show consideration, but it is relative: every day they give the dogs substances mixed with their food or through inhalation. All the dogs will be killed to allow post-mortems. And they will never run free outdoors. A scientist who came to HLS after the 1997 scandal said: "We look after them as well as we can. The clinical effects of stress would distort the results of the tests. Nobody likes using dogs as guinea pigs, but there is no alternative."

However, a researcher told us: "We are working on the use of pygmy pigs to replace dogs but we have more data on the beagle, which has been used in research since the 1960s." An official said that using pigs generally for research purposes would now be preferable from a public relations but not a scientific point of view.

Cass points out that in fact 750m animals are slaughtered in Britain every year for food, compared with 3m for experimental purposes. He also claims that reactions are culturally specific - for example, in Britain more money is collected for the welfare of retired racehorses than for orphaned children. (Moreover, he says, elsewhere in the world humans relish dog meat.)

The conditions for animal experiments in Britain are far better than in France. Since 1997 animal testing for the cosmetics industry has been banned in Britain, but not in France, where that industry is highly influential.

There have still been allegations of cruel tests at HLS, such as CFC gases tested on dogs in 2003, 15 years after they had been banned (5). There was another claim that 37 dogs had had their legs broken during tests for a bone product that had been requested by a Japanese company.

HLS claims that before a pharmaceutical or industrial product is marketed, the law requires it be tested on two types of mammal - most frequently rats or dogs - to prevent any undesirable effect on humans or the environment. A Home Office source said, in relation to the Medicines Act (1968) passed after the thalidomide disaster (6), that the rules do not require animal testing if reliable data can be collected using other methods. "There is a strong presumption that animal testing is probably a compulsory stage in launching products that are safe and effective for humans" - a strong presumption but not a scientific certainty. Opponents of testing cite instances in which drugs have had side effects on people but none on animals, and vice versa (7).

Robert Combes is scientific director of the fund for the placement of animals in medical experiments (Frame). His teams are working on alternatives to end testing in the medium term and are funded by animal protection organisations and pharmaceutical companies, making Frame a "legitimate target" of the ALF. Combes claims that the alleged need for such testing has much to do with scientific conservatism, since basic research has no interest in alternatives.

The huge potential of computer simulation has been underdeveloped. The need is economic: "in Japan and the US animal testing is compulsory," says Combes. (The Home Office source confirms this: "Companies want to sell their products in a variety of economic regions and organise their testing accordingly.") Combes adds that tests on animals are simpler; alternatives are under-funded and not a priority. The pharmaceutical industry campaigns on the "sad necessity" for animal testing but is stingy about investing in alternatives.

HLS gives Frame a symbolic contribution and is careful to publicise this. Health is an industry and HLS is the subcontractor of companies in pursuit of profit: the idea is to launch a product on the global market at the least possible cost, making sure that the company is legally covered in the event of unforeseen consequences for human health or the environment.

A guerrilla war

In the guerrilla war conducted by the opponents of animal testing, HLS has become a key target. The collective called Shac (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) publishes on its website (8) the names of companies that cooperate with HLS and invites visitors to the site to take action, including using email, fax, phone calls and mounting regular pickets outside the offices with photos of dismembered dogs. There are night demonstrations outside the homes of HLS managers and occasionally violence against property and people. Staff addresses are circulated on the net. Unlike the ALF, Shac does not officially encourage or incite unlawful acts, although its leader, Greg Avery, has been prosecuted several times.

We meet him in London�s Oxford Street, collecting signatures for petitions and donations for Shac. He says that the closure of Hillgrove (a farm breeding cats for lab tests that was bankrupted in 1999) showed Shac how to attack a target by focusing on shareholders. Concerned about the safety of their staff, HLS shareholders are pulling out: Barclays, HSBC, Oracle and Merrill Lynch have already gone.

In 2001 pressure led the Royal Bank of Scotland to abandon HLS, which was saved from bankruptcy at the last minute by an American investor, the Stephens Group. HLS tried to thwart Shac by leaving the City of London in 2002 and having its shares quoted on the New York Nasdaq exchange where shareholders can remain anonymous. But its auditors, Deloitte Touche, were targeted and had to withdraw their collaboration. Shortly after, its insurer, Marsh & McLellan, did the same, forcing the British government to insure the lab directly. Its Japanese clients have been harassed in Britain, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and Italy.

On 25 September 2003 a bomb attack in California claimed by a "Revolutionary Cells" group destroyed the offices of a Japanese client of HLS. The British minister for science, Lord Sainsbury, went to Tokyo to reassure the pharmaceutical industry. The City talked of "investment terrorists" threatening the research sector and proposed a financial reward for information that would foil attacks. An article in the Financial Times claimed that a small group of activists was succeeding where Karl Marx, the Baader Meinhof Group and the Red Brigades had failed.

At a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds, according to Brian Cass, in 2003 HLS obtained an injunction preventing demonstrators from approaching its offices and the homes of its employees. Its clients have done the same. Shac is getting around this by focusing on secondary targets too small to pay �20,000 for an injunction. In four months 22 companies have broken their ties with HLS. Some have only a tenuous link with the lab, such as the taxi firm that ferries staff and clients.

Mark Matfield has counted 400 people who have been targeted, and is trying to get them to form a victims� group: "Some are suffering from nervous depression. Families are being terrorised." The Conservative MP for Huntingdon, Jonathan Djanogly, is calling for greater penalties, like those directed against hooliganism. He believes terrorists are attacking the principles of democracy.

The animal liberation movement describes its practices as "participative democracy", contrasting it with the inertia of representative democracy. Mel Broughton, who thwarted the Cambridge project, points out that, before it was elected in 1997, New Labour made promises to those working to protect animals. It has gone back on all of them; Barry Horne died to remind Tony Blair of his manifesto.

But politicians are too involved with the oligarchy to act: direct popular action makes it possible to impose a political agenda on polit icians. Despite industrial pressure groups, the actions of the defenders of animal rights are influencing political decision-taking. Matfield acknowledges that their lawful demonstrations have contributed to the debate: in 1986 Britain enacted the world�s toughest legislation on animal testing (and last month it proposed stringent and wide-ranging changes in the laws regulating all animal welfare). Britain is also preparing to take tougher action against activists and promising to set up a huge national research centre on alternatives to animal testing.

Britain is politically split down the middle, the only choice for the electorate is between Tony Blair and his now neoliberal socialists or the rightwing Conservatives; there are sectors of the public that lack representation. The non-violent actions of those working for animal rights show it is possible to influence parliamentary democracy. And defend a noble cause.

(1) A film by Terry Gilliam (1995).

(2) There are 4 million vegetarians in Britain. About 250,000 are vegans who use no animal products, including meat, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, leather or wool.

(3) In 2001 a six-year-old girl was injured when she opened a package addressed to her father, who had a pest control business.

(4) The monkeys are conscious: they have an incision in their craniums and electrodes planted in their brains to study how neurones work. Advocates of these experiments point to the close relationship between humans and apes; opponents say this closeness makes their suffering ethically unjustifiable.

(5) The Observer, 20 April 2003.

(6) Thalidomide prescribed to pregnant women in the late 1950s led to the birth of thousands of handicapped children. Opponents consider it proves the futility of animal testing, which had revealed nothing. But those in favour of testing claim insufficient tests were carried out.

(7) Alternatives, such as human cell culture and computer simulation, are described at

Information online Site of the militant group Rage (R�seau d�informations sur la condition animale, Groupe militant contre l�Exploitation). Highly documented material on cruelty to animals. (In french) Platform for militant groups working on behalf of animals. (In french) Site for human rights� and animal rights� activists and sympathisers. Very comprehensive information on vivisection and animal testing.. (In french) Information on leather and fur trades, meat and meat products, fishing, hunting, circuses, zoos, pets and bullfighting. Information provided by associations or found on the internet, mainly in English.

Stop Animal Exploitation Now! (SAEN - english)

Animal Aid

National Anti-Vivisection Society

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