Nationwide, the FBI says animal rights and related environmental extremist groups such as the Earth Liberation Front have escalated the number and severity of criminal incidents in recent years, although they have not succeeded in carrying out their threats of direct violence against people.
"From January 1990 to June 2004, animal and environmental rights extremists have claimed credit for more than 1,200 criminal incidents, resulting in millions of dollars in damage and property loss," John E. Lewis, the deputy assistant director of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division told a Senate committee last year.
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.
Because they work as small, independent cells, they are difficult to break up.
Websites like Vlasak's help keep such a scattered movement focused by pointing out targets and then publicizing "direct actions" taken against them.
He said he does not fear acting on false information -- even after activists targeting another UCLA researcher mistakenly left a crude explosive device at an elderly neighbor's home. The Molotov cocktail did not ignite.
Michael Budkie, the executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, provides much of the research that activists use to decide whom to target. Based near Cincinnati, Budkie ferrets out public records from universities around the nation, pores through articles at the National Institutes of Health website, reads medical journals, locates animal necropsy reports and unearths research proposals.
Budkie and other activists plan to hold a press conference at UCLA today to release what they say are internal UCLA research documents "detailing primate healthcare records and experimental procedures," including those of Ringach.
He said he found articles by Ringach in scientific journals that described placing electrodes into the brains of macaque monkeys and measuring the neural response when the eye is stimulated with light.
Budkie said that, based on documents obtained by the activists, 30 monkeys are killed each year during the research.
Ringach has refused to talk about the subject after his family was repeatedly threatened. But William McBride, chairman of UCLA's animal research committee, said in a statement that "recent descriptions of some of the work being conducted here are ridiculously misleading."
Researchers at the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors hate groups, suspect Vlasak is tied to the underground that targeted Ringach.
"Spokespeople don't come out of nowhere," said Oren Segal, an eco-terrorism specialist for the ADL. "They have to prove their bona fides somehow. One of the reasons the Animal Liberation Press Office is so respected in the movement is that he is connected."
He said Vlasak brings a sense of social legitimacy to the movement. "Normally you think of these groups as tree-huggers, anarchists, people with piercings," said Segal. "Vlasak brings this notion: 'We're serious people. We have real jobs, we're affluent and we believe this.' "
In person, Vlasak is easygoing and has a sense of humor -- not the stereotypical self-righteous fanatic. He admits running astray of his own absolutist theories on animal liberation.
For a meeting with a Times reporter, he picked a California Pizza Kitchen in Santa Monica -- a place that serves all types of meat products, although he ordered a chicken-less Oriental salad and a hummus plate.
"Within a society, we do the best we can," he said. "I drive a car; I know I kill bugs. Some in the movement are the vegan police. They would not eat here."
As a medical resident before he became an activist, Vlasak said he worked doing research on dogs' arteries in a lab at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. The experiments ultimately killed the dogs. He said he was not affected by it at the time.
Ferdin -- who among many roles in the 1960s and '70s was the voice of Lucy on several "Peanuts" cartoon television specials -- decided several years later that killing animals was wrong; and, after much reading, Vlasak came around to her view. Since then, they have led or joined all sorts of causes -- against whaling, seal hunting, animal research, wolf hunting.
He and Ferdin chuckle at some of their follies in the field. "Pam was once chased down and beaten up by a popcorn lady at a circus," he said.
Yet his rhetoric is serious to the extreme.
"I don't think you'd have to kill too many," he told the Observer in England in 2004, speaking of researchers who experiment on animals. "I think for five lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million nonhuman lives."
He depicts his struggle as a war of liberation, no less significant than abolitionism in the 1800s or women's suffrage at the turn of the 20th century.
"No strictly peaceful movement has succeeded in liberation," Vlasak said. "John Brown dragged slave owners out of their beds and shot them in the street.
"I think the animal rights movement has been restrained in its use of force, mostly because people in the struggle are often people of privilege who aren't willing to risk losing that privilege."
Asked where he would draw the line on animals worth protecting with force -- jellyfish, sponges, flies? -- he parried that he has more pressing concerns.
"You don't have to believe in the rights of an oyster to see what they're doing at UCLA is wrong," he said.