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A Thin Line on Animal Rights

Dr. Jerry Vlasak stays carefully in the world of medicine while serving as a spokesman for extremists who threaten laboratory researchers.

September 05, 2006|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

His views are so incendiary that he is banned from ever visiting Britain. He has been arrested on a Canadian ice floe, at a traveling circus, at a Rodeo Drive furrier. In La Canada Flintridge, he once fended off a furious PTA mom while disrupting an elementary school fundraiser featuring circus animals.

Dr. Jerry Vlasak, a trauma surgeon who lives in Woodland Hills, takes his belief that animal life is as valuable as human to the extreme -- openly arguing that killing scientists to stop animal research would be "morally justifiable." He has become the public face for underground groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, which the FBI deems a significant domestic terror threat.

Last month, those groups scored a victory when a UCLA professor conducting research on macaque monkeys sent Vlasak and others an e-mail with the subject line "You win." After several years of harassment and threats to his family, neurobiology professor Dario Ringach announced he would stop his primate research.

"I think Dario Ringach is a poster boy for the concept that the use of force or the threat of force is an effective means to stop people who abuse animals," Vlasak said in an interview last week.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 08, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Animal Liberation Front: A story in Tuesday's California section incorrectly reported that Dr. Jerry Vlasak, an animal rights activist and trauma surgeon, performs surgeries at Riverside Community Hospital. Though he is an active member of the medical staff -- meaning that he has rights to practice if patients choose him -- he has not performed trauma surgery there since January.

Vlasak, 48, sits on a precarious perch within the animal rights movement. Through his Animal Liberation Press Office, he is the spokesman for shadowy groups that sabotage labs, vandalize homes, firebomb properties and make death threats via late-night phone calls. But he works in the wide open, operating a website, issuing press releases, talking to journalists.

The press office is in a business suite in Canoga Park. And despite Vlasak's advocacy of violence in one realm of his life, he works saving lives in another, performing surgery at Riverside Community Hospital.

He said he does not know anyone in the underground. He receives their anonymous "communiques" via e-mail or regular mail, posts them on his website and writes press releases to get the message out, he says.

The Animal Liberation Front is so deep underground that even its own members probably don't know who their fellow conspirators are, authorities say. And because there are no known leadership or membership rosters, anyone can strike under the group's name -- or claim to have done so. The communiques are often signed just "ALF."

A typical one, posted on Vlasak's website July 27: "A bomb hoax was called into Phenomenal headquarters in Torrance California on July 13. The call was a hoax, but unless they cut their ties to ... Huntington Life Sciences, the next time the result could be different. ALF."

Huntington Life Sciences is an animal research lab.

In addition to his media work, Vlasak and his wife, former child actress Pamelyn Ferdin, formed the Animal Defense League of Los Angeles to bring a more confrontational, in-your-face element to the animal rights scene. They routinely demonstrate in front of city officials' homes to protest the euthanasia of 25,000 animals a year in Los Angeles pounds.

Their tactics both infuriate and frighten. The boundary between them and the criminal underground is murky; often, those on both sides target the same people.

In December the city attorney filed 14 criminal counts against the Animal Defense League and members, including Vlasak and Ferdin, for 62 specific acts of harassment and intimidation allegedly committed since January 2004.

In May, Vlasak was convicted of "targeted protesting" -- in violation of a Los Angeles municipal ordinance -- for protesting in front of a Department of Animal Services employee's home and sentenced to 30 days' electronic monitoring. Ferdin was convicted of trespassing and sentenced to 90 days in jail. She said she was released because of overcrowding after a day in the reception area.

Vlasak said the city is violating the group's free speech rights. He said authorities lash out against demonstrators because "they don't know who else to look for."

"There is a real firewall between the above-ground people and the underground," he said. "I am so high profile, I have to stay squeaky clean."

The FBI would not comment on Vlasak specifically. But a spokesman said agents are not going after people solely for their ties to the Animal Liberation Front or other domestic extremist groups.

"We're not going to go out and arrest everyone with ties to this group," said Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman in Washington. "It's different with international terror groups like Al Qaeda, where just providing material support is breaking the law."

Experts say the animal rights campaign is more akin to the antiabortion movement than to foreign terrorist groups. Both homegrown movements harbor a wide continuum of ideology and strategy, including moderates seeking change through legal and political channels, combative picketers and an underground willing to use force.

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