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The Vivisector's Tale
Planting firebombs and issuing death threats, activists are waging war to stop scientists at UCLA from experimenting on animals. One researcher has chosen to push back

By Steven Mikulan
Los Angeles Magazine
July 2010

"Nothing burns like a car,” David Jentsch says, almost wistfully remembering the morning of March 7, 2009, when he awoke to find his Volvo on fire in the driveway. First came the bang of the gas cap blowing off, then the vehicle's alarm. It was 4 a.m. along a rustic stretch of Beverly Glen Boulevard above Sunset. As he stood in the damp chill, surrounded by walls of ivy and bougainvillea, Jentsch kept whispering the unthinkable: “They've found me.”

Jentsch (pronounced “yench”) is a psychology professor and neurobiologist at UCLA, where he conducts laboratory research on animals. Since 2006, he'd watched as animal rights militants picketed and vandalized the homes of colleagues who work with monkeys. Until that moment, though, he hoped he'd somehow gone unnoticed by them. Just maybe, Jentsch thought, the groups would fade before turning their attention to him. He recalls his futile, vaudevillian attempts to put out the blaze with a tiny kitchen fire extinguisher. Finally he gave up and went back to his house, snapping photos of the conflagration, which had ignited a tree as he waited for the fire trucks to arrive. Because he hadn't disclosed his current address even to the university, and because a housemate's car parked next to the Volvo remained untouched, a second realization dawned: He'd been followed home.

“The little group (Pro-Test) that Jentsch has is a predictable backlash,” Jerry Vlasak tells me one blustery afternoon outside a Brentwood Coffee Bean. “They won't last—they don't have the motivation to keep it going.” A wiry man in his early fifties, with sunglasses resting on his head and a salt-and-pepper goatee, Vlasak serves as a spokesman for the L.A.-based North American Animal Liberation Press Office, the bulletin board for the extreme animal rights movement. The office, which professes it doesn't advocate law breaking, is essentially a Web site that posts communiqués from individuals and clandestine animal rights groups who have committed illegal acts—often against UCLA researchers or city employees connected to Los Angeles's Department of Animal Services.

Vlasak is a contract trauma surgeon at regional hospitals. His wife, Pamelyn Ferdin, appeared in Star Trek and Lassie when she was a child actor. A veteran activist, she's been arrested many times during animal rights protests, once with her husband. Vlasak says that in the late 1980s he performed vivisection research at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, working on a project that tried to produce atherosclerosis in dogs. “I was totally inculcated,” he says, “with the idea that the animals didn't mind, or that if they did mind, it wasn't important because we were on a higher mission here.”

Two books would radicalize his thinking. Tom Regan's The Case for Animal Rights , published in 1983, established philosophical criteria for respecting animal life and became a manifesto for the animal rights movement. Regan believed that nonhuman animals, as creatures with an inherent urge to live and thrive, were morally due the same considerations as humans. In 1987, Diet for a New America was released. Written by John Robbins, whose father cofounded Baskin-Robbins, the influential book detailed the ruinous health and environmental effects of factory farming as well as its connection with animal cruelty.

“Some people can read these same books and not be changed,” Vlasak says, “but they changed me.”

Read the rest of the Feature Article here.

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