City forms new cell of resistance to the 'investment terrorists' of animal rights

As research organisations capitulate to extremists, Tim Webb and Robin Buckley look at the fightback in the Square Mile
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The Independent Online

If you feel a jab when you're walking the street alone, don't worry. It will only be me infecting you with Aids. Look forward to meeting you close up, you scumbag." This was the signoff in an anonymous letter sent to a businessman linked with animal-testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences.

The letter was certainly not subtle. Nor was beating up the company's chief executive, Brian Cass, with baseball bats. But the tactics employed by a small group of well-organised animal rights extremists were hugely successful in persuading banks, auditors and shareholders to sever ties with the company. Huntingdon had no choice in 2001 but to delist from the UK to the US.

That wasn't the end of the matter. The chilling campaign has now become a template for others. Last week, construction company Montpellier was threatened with the same treatment. The firm, listed on the Alternative Investment Market, is building an animal-testing laboratory at Oxford University. Extremists - none of the well-known activist groups that The Independent on Sunday spoke to claimed responsibility - wrote to shareholders warning that if they did not sell their stakes, their details would be advertised on the internet. "This will prompt activity by the animal rights movement to persuade these shareholders to sell," the letter says. "If you are not convinced of the effectiveness of these tactics then take a look at the campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences."

Investors took the hint and the shares fell 20 per cent. A spokesman for Montpellier insisted the company would fulfil its contractual obligations over the Oxford lab but stopped short of guaranteeing it would not pull out.

The National Association of Pension Funds has dubbed the extremists "investment terrorists" because they target the financial support of a company - its shareholders, creditors, banks and suppliers. The City has yet to form a coherent strategy to deal with these groups, which means targeted companies often roll over at the first sign of trouble. However, there are now stirrings of activity in both the Square Mile and Whitehall.

In the first four months of the year. according to the Home Office, there were 117 arrests of animal rights extremists compared with just 15 for the same period in 2003. These are the only specific statistics it records. Not surprisingly, individuals or companies that have been targeted do not make public their experiences for fear of further reprisals. Mark Matfield, director of the Research Defence Council, which represents medical researchers engaged in animal testing, says those who have gone public have been targeted again. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry keeps the most comprehensive statistics. They show that over the past couple of years the tactics of extremists have become more sophisticated. Physical violence against a small number of individuals has given way to wide-scale attacks on property. Damage to personal, company and public property leapt to 148 cases last year from 60 in 2002. Activists are also increasingly intimidating employees and directors of companies. Visits to their homes by protesters almost doubled to 259 cases last year. In February, such tactics led Cambridge University to pull out of plans to build Europe's largest primate research centre. Together with the Huntingdon delisting, these cases have buoyed the movement.

Activists say they will target any company connected with Montpellier. Greg Avery, spokesman for Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (Shac), argues that anyone - and this includes market makers which allow the shares to be bought and sold - providing a service to a targeted company is a viable target. "If Montpellier had its market makers knocked out, then it would have to be kicked off the London Stock Exchange." This includes suppliers. "The Nazis could not have operated Auschwitz without suppliers. Neither can companies."

The animal rights organisation Stop Primate Experiments at Cambridge (Speac) has also turned its attentions to Montpellier, but insists its activities are legal. It lists on its website the contact details for Montpellier's London headquarters, as well as its six operating subsidiaries. The site urges campaigners to make the companies "aware of the depth of feeling within the animal rights movement towards this new centre". But Robert Cogswell, a spokesman for the group, distances it from violent tactics. "The purpose in posting the information is to highlight a company's involvement in constructing the lab, but not to encourage illegal acts."

Despite this, information such as directors' home addresses often ends up in the hands of extremists. Wendy Higgins, campaign director of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), explains: "People will work on a number of fronts, supporting a large, legitimate group but also engaging in other activities - though this is a small number of people."

Dr Matfield of the Research Defence Council, who is also representing a new group, Victims of Animal Rights Extremism, says extremists have stymied debate over vivisection. He admits that pharmaceutical and scientific research companies are guilty of not being more open about their activities, but says this is hardly surprising under the circumstances. "Companies should try harder to communicate," he believes. "But if they speak out, they will be targeted. It's a vicious circle. Animal rights extremists shut them up."

A high-profile member of the scientific community, he has been a target many times. "I have lost count of how many death threats I've had. I've also had letter bombs." Journalists who have been critical of animal rights groups, he adds, have been threatened too. So it is understandable that directors of companies singled out by extremists usually give in to their demands. "As a company you have a duty of care to staff and customers. And you have a duty of care to shareholders if you think someone will threaten them."

In March this year, the Government set up the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, part of the National Crime Squad, to deal with these groups. But one of the biggest problems is identifying the extremists. Often they are individuals who, while loosely affiliated to official protest groups, act on their own. Last week, in a preliminary hearing in a court case brought by Huntingdon against Shac, the animal rights group argued that it could not be shut down because it did not have any members and so did not exist in a formal legal sense.

The Science minister Lord Sainsbury of Turville told the IoS that the Government is considering introducing new legislation to give the police increased powers. The Home Office could unveil this next month. He also appealed to the public to be careful over which groups they back financially. "Donations to some innocent-sounding animal welfare groups actually go to fund the criminal activities of extremists. I would urge everyone to make sure their donations go to genuine, registered charities, such as the RSPCA, who are concerned with animal welfare, not with preventing medical research in the UK."

But there is growing frustration in the scientific community about the lack of government action, despite some amendments made to criminal law following the Huntingdon campaign. Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the BioIndustry Association, says: "It's quite frustrating. You get the Home Secretary making public comments about one football hooligan, but saying nothing about these extremists."

However, there is action in the City, where plans are proceeding for a new unit that will help companies and individuals targeted by "investment terrorists". The NAPF is talking to the police, the Financial Services Authority and other City institutions and hopes to have the unit in place at the start of 2005. It will give advice and protection to victims and will offer reward money to people providing information that leads to the arrest of extremists.

NAPF board member Robin Ellison says: "The activities by these groups are getting worse. Companies and government have been quite slow to deal with the threat. We want to act collectively. It's a mistake to give in to intimidation, although it is understandable that firms give in where they are forced to act alone."

But some members of the animal rights movement believe both politicians and the media are distorting the activities of a minority to mislead public opinion. Ms Higgins of the BUAV says: "The Government paints a picture of anti-vivisection being synonymous with illegal activity. Dirtying the name of anti-vivisection by linking it to extremists is far more worrisome than the effect of their actions."

The targeting of investors, through legitimate means, is an established tactic among environmental and human rights groups. Andrew Butler, the campaign co-ordinator of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, points to considerable success in changing company policy through tactics such as shareholder resolutions. The group is targeting DaimlerChrysler, which it believes should offer the option of non-leather seats in its cars. "Addressing shareholders is extremely effective. They come from a broad spectrum of the community and most do not have a vested interest in keeping the abusive part of a firm going."

Mr Butler believes the targeting of shareholders "is definitely an effective tactic and one that will see an increase in years to come". The scientific community, like the City, insists it has no problem with peaceful protests and wants to encourage debate.

But a new breed of direct action extremists - sometimes tacitly supported by more mainstream groups - leave little room for dialogue. Mr Avery from Shac, justified the targeting of employees and directors of targeted companies. "It's not good enough to say 'I'm just a director'. There is no fence sitting. You either support 500 animals dying a day or you are on the side of the animals."

If the success of extreme tactics becontinues, the worry in the City is that other single-interest groups will adopt them too.

ANIMAL TESTING: ACTIVISTS AND EXTREMISTS

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

A global non-profit organisation promoting the rights of animals, Peta is involved in educating the public and policymakers. Supporters range from the Dalai Lama to Pamela Anderson. Peta uses cruelty investigations, research, legitimate tactics such as shareholder resolutions, special events, celebrity involvement and non-violent direct action to achieve its agenda. It also organises rock concerts and fashion shows to raise awareness. Notable successes include persuading fashion group Calvin Klein not to use fur in its products.

Stop Primate Experiments at Cambridge

Formed by a coalition of animal rights groups united in fighting a proposal to build Europe's largest primate research laboratory, Speac campaigned through non-violent action to put pressure on Cambridge University. Following the success of the campaign, with Cambridge's capitulation in January, the group has turned its attention to Oxford University's plans to construct an animal research facility.

Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty

Formed in 1999 with the aim of closing down Huntingdon Life Sciences, the group runs a global campaign with supporters operating in the UK, the US, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Shac targets Huntingdon and associated companies. Tactics include undercover investigations, demonstrations and direct action - including letters, emails and leaflets. The group does not encourage illegal activity.

The Animal Liberation Front

The ALF is widely seen as being the central terror group for Britain's animal rights activists. Formed in the UK in the 1970s, it has spread to the US. Its tactics include arson, planting explosives and physical intimidation. The ALF acts as an umbrella group for various terrorist cells. Given the diffuse nature of its organisation, it has proved relatively resilient to police investigations. Individual activists invoke the group's name, using it as a banner head to claim responsibility for acts of violence.

The Animal Rights Militia

This organisation, established in the 1980s, employs similar tactics to the ALF, but is more extreme. One of its early stunts was letter bombing Downing Street. Another high-profile campaign was directed at the confectionery maker Mars - accused of tooth-decay experiments on animals. The group announced it had poisoned hundreds of Mars bars, forcing the company to withdraw the chocolate from supermarkets. The ARM later admitted it was a hoax.

The Justice Department

A shadowy group which shares the philosophy of the ALF, it has previously targeted the live export trade, sending letter bombs to cross-channel ferry companies that exported animals to continental Europe. The Justice Department began its activities in 1993, and operates in the UK, the US and Canada. The group claimed responsibility for sending envelopes booby-trapped with poisoned razor blades in Canada. Membership is drawn from both the ultra-left and right.

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