Panel: law punishing animal rights extremists too weak

Published on August 01, 2004
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A federal statute aimed at curbing violence by animal rights extremists is ineffective against new strategies of targeting customers, employees, and vendors of companies using animals for research and other purposes.

Moreover, violent rhetoric and actions by some elements within the U.S. animal rights movement have recently escalated. Extremists bombed two northern California companies last year and have threatened to assassinate researchers, corporate officers, and employees.

Such were the observations of federal law enforcement, research, and restaurant industry officials testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The subject of the May 18 hearing was the emergence of an animal rights activism that prefers pipe bombs and intimidation to peaceful and legal forms of protest.

Committee chair Orrin G. Hatch of Utah castigated "fringe activists" for engaging in criminal conduct against academic and private enterprises conducting legitimate animal testing.

"When research laboratories and university researchers are targeted and attacked, the ones who lose the most are those who are living with a disease or who are watching a loved one struggling with a devastating illness," Hatch said.

"Those who target and attack peaceful organizations and individuals do not legitimately advance their cause and promise no breakthroughs to society. Instead, they only promote a grave threat to the well-being and advancement of mankind."

During the past several years, special-interest extremists such as the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front have shown themselves to be a serious domestic terrorist threat, said John E. Lewis, deputy assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Counterterrorism Division.

Rather than attempting to effect widespread political revolution, special-interest terrorists conduct acts of violence to force segments of society to change their attitudes about issues the terrorists consider important, Lewis explained.

In recent years, ALF and ELF have become the most active criminal extremist elements in the United States. The FBI estimates ALF, ELF, and related groups have committed more than 1,100 criminal acts in the country since 1976, resulting in more than $110 million in damages.

Despite the destructive tactics of ALF and ELF, their operational philosophy discourages violence against people and animals. Lately, however, a growing number of extremists are abandoning this precept.

"It demonstrates a new willingness on the part of some in the movement to abandon the traditional and publicly stated code of nonviolence in favor of more confrontational and aggressive tactics designed to threaten and intimidate legitimate companies into abandoning entire projects or contracts," Lewis said.

"Make no mistake about it," agreed McGregor W. Scott, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, "the individuals who commit these crimes are hard-core, dangerous, and well-funded criminals whose weapons are firebombs, timed detonation devices, Molotov cocktails, and poison."

Since May 2003, Chiron Corp., a biotechnology company headquartered in Emeryville, Calif., has experienced a campaign of intimidation, harassment, and extortion from animal rights extremists, said William Green, Chiron's senior vice president and general counsel.

Two pipe bombs exploded on the company's campus in August 2003. Four weeks later, a bomb wrapped in nails exploded at the Shaklee Inc. headquarters in Pleasanton, Calif.

Chiron and Shaklee were targeted for their business ties to Huntingdon Life Sciences, an international research firm headquartered in the United Kingdom with an office in East Millstone, N.J. The animal extremist group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty has been trying to force Huntingdon out of business for several years.

In America, SHAC USA is using similar tactics with the same goal. "The extremists threaten and cause physical, economic, and emotional harm to these third-party companies and their employees in an effort to force them to quit doing business with a targeted animal enterprise," Green said.

On May 26, the Department of Justice announced the indictments of a SHAC USA cell in New Jersey and seven of its members. The cell and the individuals are accused of conducting a campaign to terrorize employees, officers, and shareholders of the Huntingdon facility in New Jersey (see page 483).

These indirect, or "secondary" and "tertiary," actions, Lewis explained, are a departure from traditional forms of special-interest terrorism. Generally, direct actions are criminal activity meant to cause economic loss or destroy a company's operations or property. Instead, animal extremists harass, intimidate, and coerce companies and individuals doing business with the primary target, he said.

Speaking on behalf of the National Association for Biomedical Research, Stuart M. Zola, PhD, director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Laboratory at Emory University, recounted the story of a veterinary researcher at The Ohio State University awarded a $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the role of methamphetamines in the spread of HIV.

Because he used cats in his work, the researcher was threatened numerous times by animal rights extremists during a three-year period. When he could bear it no longer, he left the university and abandoned his work in 2002 and joined a private veterinary practice, Dr. Zola said.

Members of militant animal rights group indicted for national terror campaign

Federal agents in four states arrested seven members of a militant animal rights organization May 26 in connection with a campaign to terrorize officers, employees, and shareholders of a company that used animals for research and testing.

The stated goal of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty was to drive Huntingdon Life Sciences, based in East Millstone, N.J., out of business by encouraging its members and others to "operate outside the confines of the legal system," according to a federal indictment returned May 20 and unsealed on the day of the arrests.

The five-count indictment charges SHAC and seven of its members with animal enterprise terrorism, which carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hailed the arrests while calling on law enforcement to do more to combat animal rights extremists.

"I am heartened that the (Department of Justice) has stepped up their prosecutions in this area," Hatch said. "I have heard from many in the scientific and educational community, whose single goal in life is to better society through research, that individuals and organizations who carry out these sorts of tactics threaten legitimate medical advancement."

Special agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Kevin Kjonas, Lauren Gazzola, and Jacob Conroy, each of Pinole, Calif.; Joshua Harper of Seattle; Andrew Stepanian of Huntington, N.Y.; Darius Fullmer of Hamilton, N.J., and John McGee of Edison, N.J.

The indictment describes numerous acts of vandalism, harassment, and intimidation committed by individuals after postings on SHAC Web sites. Among the incidents described in the indictment are the following:

  • Overturning the car of a Huntingdon employee in the driveway of his New Jersey home, vandalizing another car, and throwing rocks through windows of a person's home in 2001
  • Detonating smoke bombs in the offices of two Seattle companies on July 10, 2002, causing the evacuation of two high-rise office buildings
  • Destroying putting greens at a Long Island, N.Y., golf club where SHAC had announced that a director of a company that provided insurance services for Huntingdon was scheduled to be for a golf tournament in the summer of 2002

"This is not activism," said U.S. attorney Christopher J. Christie. "This is a group of lawless thugs attacking innocent men, women, and children. We will not stand by and let any group or individuals violate federal law through violence and intimidation, no matter what cause they profess to advocate for in the process."

The SHAC 7, as the defendants are called on the SHAC Web site, have pleaded not guilty and vow to fight the charges tooth and nail. The site goes on to claim that the indictment is "a frightening new frontier in the war on speech.

"Their indictment is constitutionally flawed and imperils not just those who speak out on behalf of animals, but anyone who has something controversial to say," according to the SHAC Web site. "The stand they now take is a stand for civil liberties for us all."

"The world has lost a talented and highly respected biomedical researcher because of the outrageous actions of animal rights activists," Dr. Zola said, warning, "This success will only encourage similar actions against other researchers."

Two other witnesses accused People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals of engaging in a similar campaign of threats and coercion. Jonathan Blum, senior vice president of Yum! Brands, the world's largest restaurant company, accused PETA of engaging in "corporate terrorism" in its operation against Kentucky Fried Chicken.

For nearly three years, PETA has attempted to pressure Yum! into forcing its poultry suppliers to switch from standard processing techniques to a gas method of killing poultry, Blum said. The changes are "impractical, unnecessary, and unproven," he said, and would cost the company more than $50 million to implement.

When Yum! resisted PETA's demands, the organization escalated its campaign from rhetoric and dialogue to harassment and threats, Blum said. PETA's offenses include publishing the home addresses of company executives on its Web site, encouraging members to write them regularly, and telling executives' neighbors they live next to "chicken killers," he added.

"PETA has stepped over the line of protected speech and has resorted to pressure through intimidation, harassment, and invasion of privacy," Blum said.

Blum, along with Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a coalition of restaurants, food companies, and consumers, said PETA's tax-exempt status should be revoked.

In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Berman listed several instances he says prove PETA has encouraged and funded violent activity. He notes PETA donated more than $150,000 to activists who have been arrested for arson, burglary, and attempted murder.

Additionally, PETA activists have been arrested some 80 times for crimes allegedly committed during protests, the letter stated.

Berman concluded, "A disturbing current of violence runs beneath the surface of 'mainstream' animal rights groups in the United States. And some of these tax-exempt charities are providing 'material support or resources' to groups and individuals whose activities fit the U.S. Criminal Code's definition of 'domestic terrorism.'"

One tool for fighting animal rights extremists is the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992. The statute makes it a federal offense to cause physical disruption to an animal enterprise by intentionally stealing, damaging, or causing the loss of property exceeding $10,000.

Violators face fines and imprisonment, with enhanced penalties if death or serious bodily injury occurs.

Even though the Animal Enterprise Protection Act provides a framework for prosecuting animal extremists, witnesses testifying before the Senate committee said the law is inadequate and must be strengthened.

Scott said the law does not give the federal government the necessary power to effectively prosecute animal rights extremists. As such, the Department of Justice supports amending the law to prohibit the use of threats, vandalism, property damage, trespass, persistent and harassing communications, intimidation, or coercion to cause economic disruption to an animal enterprise.

Additionally, the current penalties for those who violate the statute are inadequate and may fail to deter criminal conduct prohibited by the law. In the absence of bodily harm or death, the maximum penalty violators face is a three-year prison sentence. Scott said the Justice Department supports increasing prison sentences when extremists cause substantial economic damage.

The DOJ also supports amending the statute to allow electronic surveillance and monitoring for investigations of animal enterprise terrorism. Such surveillance, Scott said, would help prevent these types of crimes. Moreover, this measure should be allowed when law enforcement has probable cause to believe that an individual is committing, has committed, or is about to violate the animal enterprise law.

"Given the serious and often violent nature of animal enterprise terrorism," Scott said, "the (Department of Justice) urges Congress to correct this deficiency in current law."