Huntingdon Life deserted by US banker and biggest shareholder

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Huntingdon Life Sciences, the controversial animal testing group under siege from protesters, yesterday lost its banker and biggest shareholder, Stephens Group, a US finance house.

Stephens had stepped in January last year to rescue Huntingdon after the Royal Bank of Scotland refused to extend a £23m company loan and other UK banks refused to do business with the beleaguered firm. A fierce campaign by animal rights activists scarred away both Huntingdon's City backers and its clients.

The deal with Stephens, which apparently provided financing up to 2006, began a turnaround in Huntingdon's fortunes and recent quarters have seen much-improved trading. Huntingdon is also in the process of moving its listing from London to the US. Stephens, which has a US retail presence and has come under attack from protesters, quit unexpectedly early.

Stephens said it had entered into an agreement to sell on its Huntingdon loan and its 16 per cent stake in the company. It is understood that the new investor, which was unnamed, comes from outside North America and Europe and does not have the sort of physical presence that campaigners could easily target.

A spokesman for Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty said until Stephens had proved it no longer had any link to Huntingdon, it would be the focus for "99 per cent" of the protests.

"Stephens have either seen sense and dumped this bad investment or they are so ashamed of it that they have gone to great lengths to cover it up," the spokesman said.

Richard Michaelson, investor relations director at Huntingdon, said the Stephens move would have no impact on his company. Unlike RBS, Stephens cannot simply pull the plug.