Three decades ago, when the animal rights movement was just reaching into public consciousness, its adherents airlifted wild burros marked for death from the Grand Canyon, stopped the clubbing of baby seals and took to the high seas to fend off whalers.
Now they do that and much more, from staging anti-fur parades to operating a frog dissection hot line to burglarizing laboratories and torching a multimillion-dollar research facility. They have sent furriers into economic shock, forced the withdrawal of untold thousands of dollars from federally funded animal experiments and compelled a growing number of companies to stop using animals to test for the safety of cosmetics and household products.
In the process, animal rights advocates have become the fastest-growing movement in the nation, at least by some counts. Up to 10 million people belong to groups ranging from the Humane Society of the United States, which stresses animal protection, to such lesser-known entities as Rat Allies and Feminists for Animal Rights.
But as animal advocates seek to turn what is still largely a protest movement into a long-term popular cause, they face a new and potentially devastating challenge.
The animal-using industries and professions that have borne the brunt of their attacks so far have launched a massive, multimillion-dollar counteroffensive. The vitriol that is now building on both sides raises two questions: Have animal rights activists gone too far? And how far will their opponents go to stop them?
The Fur Information Council of America, for example, has spent more than $2 million so far in a campaign that features, among other things, full-page newspaper advertisements that portray animal rightists as violence-prone radicals with a bizarre agenda for change.
"Today fur. Tomorrow leather. Then wool. Then meat. . . . After that, medical research. Even circuses and zoos," read the ads, which were created by the public relations firm of Burson-Marsteller.
The council also tracks activities of animal rights groups. Photographs taken by fur retailers at demonstrations have been turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice, the council acknowledges.
The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Assn. has amassed a war chest of almost $1 million for targeting legislators, news media and public-opinion makers in about 10 states where bills are being considered which would ban the use of animal testing for the safety of cosmetics and household products.
"We are in an escalating fight across the country," E. Edward Kavanaugh, CTFA's president, told members in announcing the plan. "We are not dealing with rational opponents. We are dealing with zealots who cannot comprehend that a child's life is more important than a dog's. . . ."
The American Medical Assn., a longtime foe of anti-vivisectionists, has adopted an "action plan" with a price tag of between $15 million and $35 million that is designed to "isolate the hard-core activists from the general public" by exploiting the differences within the movement over goals and tactics--particularly over the use of violence.
Among other efforts, the plan calls for challenging the tax-exempt status of certain nonprofit animal rights groups, forming a special investigative unit within the federal government to investigate animal rights activities and creating a so-called Foundation for Animal Health to draw funds away from animal rights organizations.
The AMA's crusade got a big image boost when Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, former dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, recently vowed to lead the fight against "animal rights terrorists who have impeded life-enhancing research."
The biomedical research field in particular has been galvanized. A group of beneficiaries of research on animals--Incurably Ill for Animal Research (IFAR)--have dedicated themselves to battling anti-vivisectionists by publicizing their own medical histories.
In response to what he terms "the constant barrage of lies about research programs," Charles Nicoll, a Berkeley physiologist in endocrinology, two years ago formed the Coalition for Animals and Animal Research. The group, which organizes demonstrations and lectures backing animal-based research, has 20 affiliates on university campuses across the country and, says Nicoll, has received 300 requests for information on forming similar pro-research organizations.
Even as the backlash was building, some of the more militant members in the animal rights movement had suffered setbacks:
* A federal grand jury in Sacramento is investigating the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a militant underground organization, in connection with break-ins throughout the University of California system and other Western research facilities.