Trial examining tactics of animal-rights activists wrapping up
Knight Ridder Newspapers

The members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, a proudly radical animal-rights group based in Philadelphia, acknowledge that many of their tactics can be obnoxious.

But, they add, standing in front of someone's house and using a bullhorn to call him a "puppy killer" is protected free speech.

As for those "underground activists" who break windows, overturn cars and send threatening e-mails? The Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty people say that they have no idea who they are - and that the police should arrest them.

For three weeks, some of the country's best-known animal-rights activists have been on trial in federal court in Trenton, N.J., on charges of inciting violence. The six defendants are believed to be the first in the nation tried under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, a 1992 law drafted to protect businesses from the disruption of animal-liberation protests.

Closing arguments began Monday, and the jury could reach its verdict this week.

None of the defendants is accused of committing the vandalism and terrorism described in court, including the destruction of putting greens at a Long Island golf course and the smoke-bombing of two office high-rises in Seattle.

Instead, they have been charged with using their Web site to incite violence against Huntingdon Life Sciences, the East Millstone, N.J., animal-testing laboratory they revile.

"They're innocent, above-ground activists who have been targeted because the government can't find the people throwing bricks," said Pamelyn Ferdin, an activist and former child actress who did the bossy voice of Lucy in some of the "Peanuts" specials. She took over the activist group after its president was indicted.

"A Web site is just a source of information," she said. "You can't blame a Web site if someone takes that information and goes out and commits illegal acts."

The activists regularly posted personal information about Huntingdon employees, including home addresses, home phone numbers, the names of their children - even where their children went to school.

Although a disclaimer says the group does not condone illegal tactics, the site also posted anonymous messages that bragged about vandalism and encouraged others to "go get them."

"They're very smart," said Mary Hanley, an executive vice president at the National Association for Biomedical Research. "We've never accused them of being stupid, but it's kind of a misguided passion."

Hanley also credited Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty with inventing "tertiary targeting" - going after customers and suppliers until they stopped doing business with Huntingdon.

The activists say they have driven 300 companies away from Huntingdon and persuaded the New York Stock Exchange to pull back from listing Huntingdon at the last minute.

"That's probably not exaggerated," Hanley said. "These are huge, multinational companies they've brought to their knees."

In 2004, the activists targeted Focal Communications, a Philadelphia company that provided phone and Internet service to Huntingdon.

They followed one executive to her West Chester home, passed out fliers to her neighbors, and held a noisy "home demonstration" in the street.

At the company's offices, Focal got bomb threats, the fax machine spit out nothing but black pages, and the e-mail system was jammed with 15,000 messages, each hundreds of pages.

The protests and harassment stopped only after Focal agreed to sever ties with Huntingdon - and provided the activists with written proof.

Prosecutors played a recorded speech that defendant Joshua Harper gave at the University of Washington applauding those tactics and the beating of Huntingdon chief executive Brian Cass in England.

"We control ourselves too often. ... We don't do what's necessary to close these people down," Harper said. "We need to go after these people and be as ruthless about shutting them down as they are about staying open."

Despite the tough talk, the youthful defendants - only a few are older than 30 - look as if the only jury they would face would be at a science fair.

"They're good people involved in social-justice issues," said Nick Cooney, a Philadelphia activist friendly with several of the defendants. "They're certainly not the foaming-at-the-mouth terrorists the government is portraying."

Harper, the only defendant to testify, described in a soft voice how he used controversial topics in his speeches only to make them more interesting.

"I'm opposed to the use of force or injury of any sentient life form ... including humans," he said.

Ferdin's husband, Jerry Vlasak, a surgeon and animal activist, has been quoted as saying killing some humans could save millions of animals. Ferdin said her husband's comments had been taken out of context.

Ferdin, an actress in the 1960s and '70s who quit show business at 22, became a nurse and volunteered at an animal shelter. She became a passionate animal-rights advocate after wandering into a restricted area at the shelter where dogs were given lethal injections.

"It's not a quick death. I watched," she said. "I was just horrified. ... I went home and just cried."

She joined the campaign against Huntingdon, she said, after seeing undercover footage of employees abusing beagles.

While the activists concentrate on the use of dogs - or "puppies" - in animal testing, the National Association for Biomedical Research's Hanley said more than 95 percent of the testing was done on rodents.

The harassment, she said, has scared many researchers out of an important field.

Her group is pushing for a tougher law, now before Congress, that would criminalize tactics such as tertiary targeting.

"Somehow they've come to see themselves as a higher moral authority," she said. "In my mind, they haven't thought it out."