By Stewart Payne
Four animal rights activists were spared jail yesterday after a judge heard that the rodents, rabbits, birds and dogs they "liberated" from a breeding centre were kept in such appalling conditions that the RSPCA would have prosecuted if it had known.
Judge John Sessions said he did not condone their "vigilantism" but accepted that they had been "outraged" by the conditions they found.
The animals had been bred at Merston, West Sussex, by Philip Porter, 54, for sale at his pet shop in Barnham, near Bognor Regis.
Sarah Whitehead, 49, a nurse, masterminded the raid, which was carried out with "military precision", Chichester Crown Court was told.
She was helped by Grace Quantock, 19, a university student, her boyfriend Linus Harrison, 20, and Helen Luff, 39, a traffic warden, all of whom appeared in court, and by others who did not. They cut through a wire fence and broke a window to steal 300 birds, 40 rabbits, 50 rats, several guinea pigs and 17 dogs. The animals' value was put at �3,500 and the court heard that the dogs had not been recovered.
Whitehead and Luff had spied on Mr Porter before the raid and made a video recording of the premises.
Police who arrested Whitehead found that she had documents about activist operations against Huntingdon Life Sciences, the country's largest animal research centre.
Whitehead, of Littlehampton, West Sussex, Luff, of Chichester, and Quantock and Harrison, both of Yateley, Hants, were all convicted at an earlier trial of burgling the premises. Whitehead was also convicted of burgling Mr Porter's mobile home on the site and stealing his pet dog. The four had denied all charges.
Whitehead was given a nine-month jail term, suspended for two years, and ordered to do 120 hours' community service. Luff was ordered to do 100 hours' service and Harrison 60.
Quantock was placed under a curfew which prevents her from leaving her home at night for three months.
The judge told them: "I accept that each of you was deeply troubled by what you saw at Mr Porter's premises and probably outraged.
"The smaller animals were being kept in conditions which, had the facts been known to the RSPCA, would have led to Mr Porter's prosecution for animal cruelty.
"Particular concerns were lack of cleanliness and questions over the sufficiency of water and food."
The judge refused to make a compensation order, saying: "Because Mr Porter was probably committing offences of animal cruelty, it was probable he would have had to dispose of these animals and birds."
To view the footage taken of Phil Porters site visit: