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Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2004

Animal rightists or terrorists?

LONDON -- The threat of attacks by Islamic extremists is not the only terrorist threat to our society. Animal-rights extremists have been threatening firms that carry out experiments on animals. Animal rightists do not regard as justification for the research the fact that most initial tests are conducted on mice and rats, and only at later stages on a limited number of primates.

Nor do they think it relevant that mice and rats are generally regarded as vermin that spread diseases in society. The animal rightists also refuse to take any account of the misery caused by diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, which pharmaceutical companies are trying to treat by developing new drugs. For them, animals seem to matter more than humans.

Animal rightists are entitled to their views in a free society, but this does not entitle them to flout the law and terrorize companies and their staffs involved in this research. Terrorist attacks on directors and staff of Huntingdon Life Sciences, a British firm that conducts tests on animals for pharmaceutical companies, have included not only threats to the lives and properties of directors and staff of the company but also assaults and destruction of property.

Staff have been sent packets of excrement and had their homes picketed by noisy animal rightists shouting abuse through megaphones and in general trying to disrupt not only the life of employees but also that of their families, including children. They have received frequent abusive telephone calls and threats to spread false information about them to neighbors, including invented allegations that individuals have been involved in child-sex abuse. Police resources in protecting staff have been greatly stretched, and the protection has often been inadequate.

In addition to direct threats to Huntingdon Life Sciences, the movement called Stop Huntingdon Life Sciences has targeted banks that provided financial services and brokers who dealt in Huntingdon's shares.

Staff in the banks and security houses that provided these services were personally threatened; therefore, to protect their staff, the banks and stockbrokers involved withdrew from providing services to Huntingdon. As a result, Huntingdon Life Sciences has ceased to list shares in Britain, and the Bank of England has been forced to step in and provide banking services for the company. It is the only company in Britain so served by the Bank of England.

The animal rightists, not content with harrying Huntingdon Life Sciences, have targeted proposed new facilities for animal testing. A laboratory was to have been built near Cambridge and planning approval was given, but the University of Cambridge, which was sponsoring the scheme, withdrew its backing allegedly on financial grounds. A separate laboratory that was being built near Oxford with university backing was then targeted, and the builders felt obliged to withdraw from the project. As a result, the military may be called in to do the work.

Animal rightists have also targeted companies that want to use the testing facilities of these laboratories. These include a number of Japanese pharmaceutical companies that, with British government backing, have set up research and development facilities in Britain. Demonstrations have even been made in front of the Japanese Embassy in London to push the animal rightists' campaign. The campaign has thus damaged British efforts to promote inward investment and threatens employment in the pharmaceutical industry.

Laws dealing with threats against life and property have been tightened and court orders have been issued to stop demonstrators from getting too close to the homes of staff of companies involved. Further steps are planned, but those under threat fear that measures planned or taken so far will prove inadequate. It is difficult to deal effectively with these animal rightists without infringing on their human rights, but they need to be seen as what they are -- namely criminal terrorists.

We must, of course, do all we can to prevent cruelty to animals. Responsible companies, in fact, do all they can under strict supervision to minimize any pain that animals may feel as a result of testing. The days when tobacco companies tested cigarettes by forcing chimpanzees to chain-smoke until they became nicotine addicts are long over. Responsible cosmetics companies no longer test their products on animals.

Since some of the diseases that cause so much distress today may be cured by new drugs under development, we owe it to the sufferers to do what we can to help make it possible for pharmaceutical research to make breakthroughs.

Animal-rights terrorism is not just an issue for Britain. Animal rightists are also active in the United States, and are likely to attack any company anywhere that is directly or indirectly involved in testing drugs on animals.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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