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Eco-Warriors Making House Calls

Picketing homes, calling at all hours and vandalizing cars are among new tactics.

May 25, 2003|Don Thompson | Associated Press Writer

SACRAMENTO — Animal rights activists showed up with blaring sirens and bullhorns at 3 a.m. one day at the home of an executive of a Los Angeles software company.

"We'll be back, scumbag," Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty said on its Web site later in the day. "Denny, we know where you live, we know where you work, and we'll make your life hell until you pull out of HLS."

The executive doesn't work for the group's target, Huntingdon Life Sciences. His firm just sells computer software to the animal testing lab. But SHAC plastered his neighborhood with photographs of a mutilated dog, and posted his home and work telephone numbers on the Internet while inviting "hundreds of activists" to call him day and night.

SHAC says its home visits to people with even tenuous ties to animal research have "broken new ground in the struggle for animal liberation." Similar tactics are quickly being adopted by other environmental extremist groups that stop just short of physical violence in terrorizing families and entire neighborhoods in the name of protecting animals and trees.

"It becomes a prototype for attacking any kind of business that does anything any group doesn't like," said Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. "It's likely that we are just witnessing the beginning of a very serious problem."

For instance, 18 Santa Cruz neighbors had their sport utility vehicles spray-painted with anti-war slogans overnight by members of the Earth Liberation Front last month.

An Earth First! activist plans to adopt the techniques to shut down logging by Pacific Lumber Co. on California's North Coast.

"My idea was those same tactics can be very effective against the destroyer of old-growth forests," said Rodney Coronado, a former Animal Liberation Front member who spent more than four years in prison for fire-bombing animal research laboratories at Michigan State University in 1992.

The tactics are also being eyed by opponents of globalization, supporters of fair wages -- any social justice movement that sees corporations as an enemy, said Kevin Jonas, SHAC organizer.

The tactics were pioneered by British activists who recognized that behind every faceless corporation, "there are people who have homes and liability and privacy issues," Jonas said.

Court orders in California, Illinois, New Jersey and New York, a federal grand jury investigation and the arrests of a dozen SHAC activists in Boston last fall haven't stopped an activity that can skirt the legal protections of free speech or stray into vandalism and terrorism.

An Internet technique borrowed from abortion opponents gives the campaigns unprecedented reach while permitting a degree of legal separation from illegal activities that might result. SHAC's Web site, for instance, posts a state-by-state, point-and-click map listing Huntingdon affiliates.

"We're seeing sort of a copycat effect within the ecoterror movement," said Kelly Stoner, executive director of the Oregon-based watchdog group Stop Eco-Violence!

Earth First! activists occupied a Portland, Ore., bank in July and urged a boycott because two of the bank's board members are timber executives. And last fall, another group discussed targeting a timber company's insurance carriers and finding out where company officials live, attend church and send their children to school, she said.

"One has to wonder where it's going to stop because SHAC's success is definitely not going unnoticed," Stoner said.

The spin-offs were apparent during World Week for Animals In Labs last month.

An offshoot so new it doesn't yet have a name claimed responsibility for a demonstration outside the New York City home of Huntingdon Chief Executive Officer Andrew Baker.

Near the UCLA campus, up to 50 masked members of Students for Animal Liberation demonstrated outside the homes of UCLA researchers, one of whom reported broken windows and a street lamp.

But it's home visits like those targeting the software executive and two other Los Angeles executives who do business with Huntingdon that have prompted dozens of firms to sever their ties with the research lab.

"This is a new tactic of political extremism that we're not used to in this country. It's simply never been done before," said Richard Michaelson, Huntingdon's chief financial officer.

In England last summer, activists beat a Huntingdon managing director and sprayed a caustic liquid in the face of another Huntingdon employee.

There have been no known physical assaults on individuals in the United States, but Michaelson and others fear increasingly violent rhetoric means that it's only a matter of time.

"Terrorism isn't so much what you do to someone -- it's what you make people think," said Michaelson, himself the target of a recent home visit.

SHAC and ALF oppose violence against any animal, including humans, Jonas said. But he argued that inducing human terror "pales by comparison to what these animals feel" during research.

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