The siege of Huntingdon

Activists have been waging war on Europe's biggest animal research laboratory for eight months. Their weapons are hate, paint, spit and intimidation. But now they've discovered how to hit Huntingdon Life Sciences where it really hurts: in the pocket. It's a tactic that's paying instant dividends and threatens to bring animal testing in Britain to its knees
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The woman's voice is hysterical. Shrill and relentless, it reverberates across the laboratory compound from beyond the fortified gates. "What kind of perverts are you," she screams through her megaphone. "Keeping animals in tiny, filthy cages. Slitting their throats. Shame on you. Shame on you."

The woman's voice is hysterical. Shrill and relentless, it reverberates across the laboratory compound from beyond the fortified gates. "What kind of perverts are you," she screams through her megaphone. "Keeping animals in tiny, filthy cages. Slitting their throats. Shame on you. Shame on you."

The woman continues this amplified abuse until she has exhausted herself. When she can shout no more, her companions - a ragged bunch including a grandmother of six, a young man with studs through his cheeks, and a girl called Catherine who tells me that she temps so she can devote time to "the cause" - take their turn at the megaphone. The tirade began before lunchtime and continues all afternoon - until the 760 employees at Huntingdon Life Sciences, Europe's largest contract animal-research laboratory, leave work at five.

For the workers, it's an awful way to end the day. First, they must drive past the high-security fences and the layers of hooped razor-wire, past the steel observation tower and the patrolling alsatian dogs, to reach the public highway. Then they must suffer the daily barrage of abuse. The guard at the gate warns anyone who forgets to wind up their car windows that the animal-rights protesters tend to spit.

As the workers leave in their cars, the protesters' drums start to beat and the whistles trill. "Pure evil," screams the lad with the studs, as he shoves a poster graphically depicting the horrors of vivisection into the path of passing cars. Like others on the demonstration, he dreams of storming the laboratories and "liberating" the animals inside. He dreams, too, of a vicious revenge and it's clear that he would like to subject the "jailers" to the same "torture" the animals have suffered in the name of research.

Huntingdon has been under siege like this for eight months - since protesters turned their full fury on the Cambridgeshire centre after their campaign closed Hillgrove Farm, near Whitney in Oxfordshire, which bred cats for scientific experimentation. Since then, says Andrew Gay, Huntingdon's marketing director (surely, one of the world's more difficult jobs), workers have suffered daily abuse, intimidation and even terrorism. Employees receive regular letters and phone calls at home. The callers scream at them, and warn them to leave Huntingdon or else. Veiled threats are made about their children.

Protesters in balaclavas and wearing terrifying skull masks visit workers at home, throwing bricks through their windows and alerting the neighbours to the fact that they live next door to "perverts" and "murderers". Six weeks ago, the cars of three staff members were firebombed, on the same night, outside their own homes. Those employees have yet to return to work, and all are in counselling. Andrew Gay insists that staff turnover is not high; but the activists that I spoke to claim that the local newspapers are "always" advertising jobs at the laboratories.

So, the situation at Huntingdon is very unpleasant, and not just for the animals. But the surprising thing is that it is not these familiar forms of intimidation which are crippling Huntingdon. Rather, it is a new strategy employed by the activists - which focuses on company finances - that may yet close it. And, according to Andrew Gay, it could eventually chase the testing of pharmaceutical products from these shores entirely, with disastrous consequences for the wider British pharmaceutical industry.

Huntingdon is the largest company to be targeted by animal rights activists so far. It is also the first to be listed on the London Stock Exchange - and it is this that has opened up a new world of possibilities to the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign. Shac, which distances itself from the most extreme behaviour of supporters, is now waging a concerted financial offensive, not just against Huntingdon but the financial institutions necessary to its survival.

In truth, Huntingdon has never fully recovered from the crisis that engulfed it in 1997, when Channel 4 secretly filmed two of its workers viciously shaking and punching a sad-faced, helpless beagle. The company's share price plummeted and the government threatened to close it down. Valued at £335m in 1990, Huntingdon is now worth only around £16m. But until the activists descended last year, the company did appear to have cleaned up its image.

In his office, Andrew Gay catalogues the recent financial attacks which have once again set the share price falling. On the phone, Gay had earlier summed up the last eight months as "a joy", but in the flesh, he seems irritated, beleaguered and, perhaps, a little alone.

That's not surprising. For the City seems to be deserting Huntingdon. In February, the fund manager Phillips and Drew offloaded an 11 per cent stake in the company. Shares worth 10p tumbled to a penny . Then earlier this month Huntingdon's broker, WestLB Panmure, resigned. And now there are very strong rumours that the Royal Bank of Scotland is considering not renewing Huntingdon's £24m overdraft.

The companies have been coy about their reasons for breaking with Huntingdon, but there is no doubt that the pressure from animal-rights activists has influenced events.

Gay says Phillips and Drew was attacked on many fronts. In January, a Shac campaign sheet, entitled "Blood Money", claimed the fund manager was "ultimately responsible" for the fate of the animals at Huntingdon. Then companies who entrust pension funds to Phillips and Drew were targeted individually, which lead to protests outside plants belonging to companies including Rover, as well as several local councils. Then came the embarrassing revelation that the Labour Party, recipient of a £1m pre-election donation from the Political Animal Lobby, had pension funds with Phillips and Drew and, by implication, in Huntingdon.

Along with the protests came the intimidation. There were bomb hoaxes at Phillips and Drew's headquarters in the City, and the directors of UBS UK Holding, Phillips and Drew's parent company, discovered their names and addresses in a Shac newsletter. They had those obscene phone calls and unwelcome home visits to look forward to.

The broker WestLB Panmure was subject to the same treatment. Protesters invaded one of its large corporate events in London. Then its directors' names and addresses were published in a newsletter and threats were made to their families. Now individual shareholders are on the rack. Last week, 1,500 had their names and addresses printed on Shac websites, each a possible focus for the anger of local animal rights groups in Britain.

In the face of this onslaught, Gay has opted for more "openness". He facilitates visits for journalists like me to see the beagles and the monkeys; trips which, of course, are dismissed by activists as a whitewash of the horrors really taking place in the lab. Indeed, all the animals I am taken to see look healthy and well looked after. Still, it's hard not to feel sorry - even if you believe that animal testing is a necessary evil - for dogs bred for experimentation, kept caged for most of their lives and killed when the testing is over. As Gay puts it "autopsy is the most important part of the experiment".

Later, at an anonymous terraced house in Cambridge belonging to an old lady who has campaigned against animal testing for years, the official tour is countered by Shac activist Les Stevens. He presses his remote control: video-nasty time. As an ageing cat lolls on the sofa, the famous film of Huntingdon's abused beagle rolls. A film made in Huntingdon's American laboratories around the same time by undercover activist Michelle Rokke shows similarly callous treatment of animals. The monkeys in her film scream and struggle as they undergo "gavage" - being "dosed" with a new nasal spray via a tube through their nose. "Like the world needs another nasal decongestant," says Rokke bitterly.

But although smuggled films have their impact, it is Shac's new tactics that are hitting companies in their pockets where it really hurts. Les Stevens says that the campaigners are not City slickers and are only gradually discovering all that is possible on the financial front. Fellow activist Greg Avery agrees. "We are on a steep learning curve," he says. And he adds that what they don't know they can find out from a network of City sympathisers. "UK activists set precedents for the rest of the world," says Rokke. "And others emulate what is happening here."

Perhaps that alone ought to be enough to worry the global pharmaceuticals industry. And Andrew Gay certainly argues that if Shac's tactics succeed at Huntingdon, it will be Britain's fledgling biotech companies next, and then the pharmaceutical giants themselves, which will feel the pressure.

Privately, Huntingdon's directors are angry at their speedy desertion by City firms. And at the "two-faced" attitude of government which demands that new medicines be adequately tested - the public would expect nothing less - but never makes that clear, forcibly and in public, leaving Huntingdon to take the flak.

Gay thinks its time the industry got together and met the anti-vivisectionists' arguments head on. The difficulty is that many companies are too worried about widespread public distaste for testing to go on the offensive. How easy, Gay muses, his job would be were he employed by the other side. "Their blatant emotional propaganda is easy to pump out," he says.

The Biotechnology Industries Association (BIA), which represents 100 new biotech companies, is particularly concerned by Huntingdon's predicament. Most of its members have yet to bring products to market, and need the City for vital research-and-development funds. But once developed, their products will also have to be animal-tested by law. "It makes them particularly vulnerable," says a BIA spokesman.

The association has written to WestLB Panmure criticising it for not "standing firm". It is about to write to the Royal Bank of Scotland asking it not to be the latest to crumble. The association is also lobbying the Government to change the law to allow vulnerable company directors to withhold their addresses from company accounts. "Animal terrorism is the number one threat to them [the directors] in the UK at the moment," said the spokesman. "But because the tactics are new, most companies have not thought about it properly yet."

But Greg Avery doubts that any of that matters. "The financial institutions are looking at Huntingdon and seeing it's not worth the hassle." Will the City develop "backbone". "No," he predicts. "It's only interested in profit. It would sell its granny for a pound. Quite frankly, they are realising that there are easier places to invest money." Huntingdon will close, Avery says emphatically. Its now only a question of time. And the pharmaceutical giants? "Their time will come."