Early one recent morning, the wife of a pharmaceutical executive was followed to her workplace, her car was broken into and her credit cards were stolen; later $20,000 in unauthorized charitable donations were billed on the cards.
It was the latest in a series of attacks by the Animal Liberation Front on the Long Island family. The activists, who have asserted responsibility, once scrawled “Puppy Killer” in red paint on the executive’s house and have posted the couple’s phone, license plate and bank account numbers on the Internet, along with this threat: “If we find a dime of that money granted to those charities was taken back, we will strip you bare.”
The Animal Liberation Front has targeted the executive’s employer, Forest Laboratories Inc., as part of a six-year campaign against one of the company’s contractors, Huntingdon Life Sciences. Huntingdon, a British-based firm, uses animals to test household products and medications.
“Anybody who does business with this company, they become a legitimate target for the campaign,” Jerry Vlasak, an ALF spokesman and a physician in Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview.
The campaign is not just against the Long Island family, authorities said. The FBI and at least two New York police departments have launched an investigation into attacks on about 30 Forest Laboratories employees in the New York metropolitan area. Investigators said that in the past six months the animal rights activists have escalated their attacks, moving from protests at the homes of their targets to vandalism to theft and threats.
“You feel powerless against what’s going on around you,” said the executive’s wife, who asked that her name not be printed while the investigation continues. “We are victims; we are innocent. These people have no clue what they do.”
In New Jersey, seven animal rights activists face trial on federal terrorism charges for allegedly inciting others to harass and threaten employees of other companies connected with Huntingdon Life Sciences. The trial is scheduled to start in June.
“We’ve been seeing it steadily increase over a couple of years — the number of incidents, the costs and the change in the rhetoric,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino. “They see themselves in an asymmetrical war, that’s what we’re seeing on the hard left.”
FBI officials estimate that in the past decade, ALF supporters have committed 700 criminal acts and caused $112 million in damage. In the United States, the number of incidents attributed to ALF decreased slightly last year, but their attacks have grown in size and cost.
Federal and New York officials acknowledge that they have made only a few arrests. The challenge, they say, is cracking an amorphous movement. The ALF has no leader or organizational chart, and the activists are methodical and careful, attacking only after conducting extensive surveillance.
“They aren’t street criminals,” said Detective Lt. James T. Rooney with the Suffolk County police on Long Island. “A lot of them are college educated, and they are aware of the limits of what they can do. You’re dealing with intelligent people.”
Vlasak, who is a former animal researcher, asserts that he does not know the identity of the animal rights activists, saying he receives information from anonymous communiques sent to the press office and Internet postings. He said the movement does not condone violence against people.
“The above-ground campaign writes letters, and it’s the underground actions that capture the interest,” Vlasak said.
Founded in England in the 1970s, the ALF took root in the American West a decade later, the FBI said. The organization gained notoriety for its “animal liberation” actions in which activists broke into university and biomedical labs to rescue rabbits and mice. In the past decade, ALF activists spread to the East Coast, with their activity growing against the biomedical industry, which often relies on testing animals.
“They share philosophic and spiritual ethics and find each other in the American landscape, often in small numbers, and learn about activities of the so-called liberation front,” said Bron Taylor, a professor at the University of Florida who has studied radical environmental movements.
The FBI said U.S. animal rights activists have not committed violence against people. In England, however, three ALF activists used a pickax to beat the managing director of Huntingdon Life Sciences outside his home. A British court convicted David Blenkinsop in the attack.
Huntingdon Life Sciences has lost investors, banking support and insurers in Europe, after it became the target of harassment, including death threats.
In New Jersey, federal prosecutors say members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, a group affiliated with the Animal Liberation Front, used the Internet to incite 20 attacks, including threats, vandalism — slashing car tires and breaking windows — and detonating a smoke bomb in Seattle, according to the indictment against the seven animal rights activists in New Jersey.
The New Jersey members, like ALF activists, post the personal information on “targets” along with suggested “direct actions.” “We’ll be at their offices, at their doorsteps, on their phones or in their computers,” read one SHAC announcement, according to the indictment. “There will be no rest for the wicked.”
Defense attorneys say that employee information is publicly available and covered by the First Amendment. But in Pennsylvania, a state court granted a temporary injunction to another pharmaceutical company, ruling that the New Jersey activists had set up a Web site that incited and encouraged violence.
On Long Island, the pharmaceutical executive and his wife live cautiously but refuse to change their lives after the attacks. Their nameplate still marks the entrance to the planned community where they live. Letters arrive at the black mail box planted on the main road, and they still rely on local police to patrol the area.
“We all have things we believe in, but do we set bombs and light cars on fire?” the executive’s wife asked. “We live in a country where people shouldn’t live like that.” © 2005 The Washington Post Company