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UCLA professor stands up to violent animal rights activists

J. David Jentsch organizes a campus rally April 22 of those who believe biomedical testing on animals saves human lives. His car was set on fire March 7, allegedly by opponents of testing.

April 13, 2009|Larry Gordon

As soon as he heard his car alarm blare and saw the orange glow through his bedroom window, UCLA neuroscientist J. David Jentsch knew that his fears had come true.

His 2006 Volvo, parked next to his Westside house, had been set ablaze and destroyed in an early morning attack March 7. Jentsch had become the latest victim in a series of violent incidents targeting University of California scientists who use animals in biomedical research.

"Obviously, someone who does the work I do in this environment expects that it's possible, indeed likely, that it would have happened," said Jentsch, who uses vervet monkeys in his research on treatments for schizophrenia and drug addiction. Before the attack, he had received no threats and had taken only limited precautions, including keeping his photo off the Internet.

"I've been as careful as you can be without being paranoid," he said.

After similar incidents, other UCLA scientists have become almost reclusive as security and public curiosity around them grew. Three years ago, another UCLA neuroscientist, weary of harassment and threats to his family, abandoned animal research altogether, sending an e-mail to an animal rights website that read: "You win."

But Jentsch has decided to push back.

Jentsch, an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry, has founded an organization at UCLA to voice support for research that uses animals in what he calls a humane, carefully regulated way. He is organizing a pro-research campus rally April 22, a date chosen because animal rights activists, who contend that his research involves the torture and needless killing of primates, already had scheduled their own UCLA protest that day.

"People always say: 'Don't respond. If you respond, that will give [the attackers] credibility,' " Jentsch, 37, said in a recent interview in his UCLA office. "But being silent wasn't making us feel safer. And it's a moot point if they are coming to burn your car anyway, whether you give them credibility or not."

The incidents have traumatized many professors and students on the Westwood campus, well beyond the circle of those directly affected, said Jentsch, who was not injured in the car fire.

The rally, he said, "is an attempt to repair some of the trauma that people have felt, through solidarity and shared experience." Speakers are expected to include Tom Holder, a leader of Pro-Test, a British group formed in 2006 in support of animal research. Also likely to appear are patients suffering from illnesses that researchers say might one day be cured by treatments discovered in such experiments.

The new UCLA organization is named UCLA Pro-Test, in honor of the British group. Its message, Jentsch said, is that ending animal research "would be devastating, absolutely devastating, in the loss of knowledge and its practical applications to human health."

Holder, who now heads a similar U.S.-based organization called Speaking of Research, praised Jentsch's efforts. "I think it is fantastic that scientists are finally finding their voice and standing up against animal rights extremists," he said in a telephone interview from England.

In the last three years, UCLA has reported at least 10 arsons, attempted arsons and other acts of vandalism against its professors and researchers, along with many unrealized threats. In February, four animal activists were arrested on allegations that they were involved in attacking and harassing animal researchers at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, but no arrests have been made in any of the UCLA cases, according to FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller. She said the incidents are under investigation as acts of domestic terrorism.

The UC system has spent several million dollars in recent years to improve security around researchers' homes, classrooms and offices. Citing security concerns, Jentsch declined to have his photo taken for this article.

Two days after Jentsch's car was burned, a profanity-laced Internet message from the murky Animal Liberation Brigade took credit for the fire, as it had for past UCLA assaults.

"The things you and others like you do to feeling, sentient monkeys is so cruel and disgusting we can't believe anyone would be able to live with themselves," the message read. "David, here's a message just for you, we will come for you when you least expect it and do a lot more damage than to your property."

Jerry Vlasak, a Los Angeles-area physician and frequent spokesman for the animal rights movement, said he and fellow activists do not participate in the attacks and do not know who is behind them, although he sympathizes with the actions.

Jentsch, according to Vlasak, "is hurting and killing non-human primates every day. And if it took harming him to make him stop torturing, it is certainly morally justifiable."

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