To her detractors, she is a merciless rabble-rouser. To her admirers, she's a selfless saviour of innocent animals. But both sides agree on one thing: Heather James is the single biggest threat to Britain's vivisection industry - and she's planning her n

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IN A VEGETARIAN café just off London's Tottenham Court Road, Heather James asks the staff which of the salads are suitable for vegans. She's 32, looks younger, with dark hair, blue eyes, Welsh accent, mobile phone. On her T-shirt there's a picture of two kittens. You might take her for a student, or perhaps for a nanny or barmaid. But although she occasionally works part-time in these last two capacities, her real work is altogether more serious. The bag she dumps on the seat beside her is full of gruesome documents, and the T-shirt is no fluffy Disneyworld souvenir. Above the picture of the kittens is the word "Saved".

IN A VEGETARIAN café just off London's Tottenham Court Road, Heather James asks the staff which of the salads are suitable for vegans. She's 32, looks younger, with dark hair, blue eyes, Welsh accent, mobile phone. On her T-shirt there's a picture of two kittens. You might take her for a student, or perhaps for a nanny or barmaid. But although she occasionally works part-time in these last two capacities, her real work is altogether more serious. The bag she dumps on the seat beside her is full of gruesome documents, and the T-shirt is no fluffy Disneyworld souvenir. Above the picture of the kittens is the word "Saved".

They came from Hill Grove Farm near Witney in Oxfordshire, owned by Christopher Brown, who for nearly 30 years had bred cats there for laboratory research. In August this year, after a two-year animal rights protest - and 350 arrests, and 21 jail sentences, and a policing operation which cost the Thames Valley force nearly £3m - Brown closed down his cat-breeding business, having twice failed to sell it. Small wonder, given the mayhem, the letterbomb, and the sleepless nights that came with it.

Heather James was one of the leaders of the protest, and the public face of the campaign "Save the Hillgrove Cats". She had nothing to do with the letterbomb (which was sent before the campaign started), but in the past three years she has emerged as one of Britain's leading fighters against vivisection and animal experiments, instrumental in closing down two laboratory-animal breeding operations: Consort Kennels near Ross-on-Wye, from which some 200 beagles were rehomed; and Hill Grove, from which the RSPCA took in 800 cats that had been destined for research laboratories around the world.

James and a small group of protest coordinators have achieved success out of proportion to their numbers through the classic attritional tactics of guerrilla war: maintaining a relentless presence at the gates of their target for, James says, "as long as it takes": all-night vigils, public meetings, mass demonstrations - until the owners, managers and workers are worn down by the disruption, publicity, security costs, maybe fear. "We're against all animal abuse, but we focus on vivisection, because I think it's one of the worst types," says James. "Think of those animals: they're born for the labs, and they die there without a friend in the world. And if you focus on one business at a time, and focus all your strength on it, you can destroy it.'

In Britain, there are around 20 firms which must be uncomfortably aware of this - breeders, importers and suppliers of laboratory animals. The group is now planning what and whom to target next. "We've got an idea, but we haven't finally decided," says James. "But whichever place we choose is finished. I'm warning them now, they're finished. We have a 100 per cent success rate..."

IF YOU'RE not a scientist and you've ever wondered what a study of "Adaptive fusimotor reflex control in the decerebrate cat" might involve, this is it.

Eight cats were anaesthetised and the arteries in their necks were tied. Most nerves to their left back legs were cut below the hip, and two recording wires were pushed into one of their leg muscles. The cats were then placed in a frame over a treadmill, held by the head and by pins in their hips and clamps on their left back leg. Part of their brain was removed, and the anaesthetic was then discontinued. Some local anaesthetic was applied near the pins in their hips and to the cut skin of their legs. With the treadmill running to make the cats' legs "walk", the reaction to electrical impulses applied to a nerve from their feet was measured. The purpose of this was to investigate how nerve messages from the skin of their feet might affect control of their leg muscles.

These experiments were conducted at Newcastle University medical school, and conformed to Home Office regulations. The results were published in the journal Brain Research earlier this year. There is no mention as to why or to what ultimate purpose they were carried out.

Some people believe that this sort of experiment is justifiable (for what it's worth, I don't). But for Heather James, it's far more than a mere matter of opinion. It's the sort of thing that used to make her weep helplessly with sadness and disgust. Then she got mad. Then she decided to get even.

"I still get times now when I feel very sad, and upset. But I've gone beyond being sad now, and become very, very angry. And I've turned that anger into being cold and calculating and businesslike about it, because crying over the animals doesn't help them. I feel angry, and hateful towards those people [who breed animals for experiments or conduct experiments]. But I channel it and use it to do something positive. And if you then get other people to join you as well ... between Consort and Hill Grove that's over 1,000 animals that have got their lives back."

She says, only partly joking, that it's like the Mafia, this secretive world of establishments and laboratories to which the RSPCA has no automatic right of access, and where much of the work is "general research", and not the heroic battle to find a cure for cystic fibrosis or cancer that we like to imagine. It's certainly a world where claim, counter-claim and misinformation fly about, thick as snowflakes in a blizzard; where research funding, scientists' personal ambitions and the share prices of global drugs corporations are at stake; and where the two sides are so implacably opposed that they can barely agree what day of the week it is - far less whether animal experiments have led to most of the medical benefits we enjoy today and have saved millions of lives, or whether they're a barbaric medieval anachronism which any semi-civilised society should have outlawed.

It gets personal, too. Christopher Brown, who makes no secret of his bitterness about the closure of his cat-breeding business, describes James and her fellow protesters as "misguided anarchists", and adds: "I'm convinced she's got no feelings for anyone - but she likes the stage..."

James, between mouthfuls of rice salad, says that Brown must have had a "bit of a strange, twisted mentality" to dispatch kittens a few weeks old to laboratories in the UK and around the world. She adds that when Hill Grove closed, on 13 August, she felt "absolutely ecstatic".

Brown claims that James and her colleagues in the Hill Grove protest "made their living" for two years from the campaign. In what way? "Well, they collect in town centres, they collected a terrific amount," he says. James says that of all the people present at Hill Grove - police, press, security guards, workers, Brown - the protesters were the only ones who weren't being paid. "And we're the ones accused of being paid!" she exclaims. "We get that all the time. They can't understand that there are people who will do something for nothing - just because they believe in it."

THE WOMAN at the centre of this slanging match lives on the edge of Birmingham with her husband Greg Avery, a veteran of some 15 years of animal rights campaigns and hunt saboteur missions (who was acquitted, two years ago, on an animal rights-related charge of conspiracy to damage property). For obvious reasons, their address is a box number, their phone permanently set to an anonymous voicemail message. ("We're careful," she says, "but we've had no retaliation.") They share the house with five dogs, which James got from rescue centres. "I try to take on problem dogs that other people don't want. After a few weeks with us they come round lovely," she smiles. She says she and Greg live a "very sparse existence". Most of their time is devoted to campaigning, or to their dogs.

"Greg works as an auction trader, buying and selling, and I work part-time in a bar, or do some nannying or whatever. We just manage to scrape by, really. But we have a good social life with other people who are involved [in the campaigns]. We'll go to the pictures, to the pub, for a meal, whatever..." She says it's just a handful of people, who come and go. "There's a few who are there most of the time, and others who come and help when they can." She and Avery met at a protest against veal-calf exports at Coventry Airport, and chose their Birmingham base, she says, for strategic reasons - central, easy to travel from there to protests anywhere in the country.

"I've always felt like this, for as long as I can remember," she says. "But for years and years I didn't think there was anything I could do; and I didn't realise that other people felt the same way." The defining moment for her came when Jill Phipps - a protester against the calf exports from Coventry - died under the wheels of a lorry there in February 1995.

"I never knew her," says James, "but it was one of those moments when you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news. I was at home in Wales with my mum and dad, and my dad came in and said: 'Somebody's been killed...' That's when I decided that I'd go to Coventry. That's where it started, for me."

She didn't know anyone in the animal rights movement; but a few days later she set off, alone, on the coach. There was a protest camp at the airport, and she lived there until the exports ended in early summer.

These few months were to change her life. She had been brought up in Wales - where her father is a college lecturer and her mother works in a department store - and the family had a long history of being vegetarian or vegan, back to her maternal grandparents who had become vegetarians during the Second World War. Her father, too, had become vegetarian when he was a teenager - after a pet cockerel was served up for the family dinner - and, to the bemusement of neighbours, a vegan when he was 20. "He was brought up in the Welsh valleys, in a farming area - so it was almost unheard of in those days," she says. "He's been a strict vegan for more than 40 years."

James left school after her O-levels. "All I wanted to do was work with horses - just horse-mad I was, as a child and as a teenager." She worked in some stables for a while, taking people out pony-trekking, and she worked as a nanny. Then came the death of Jill Phipps, and Coventry. James had found her mission.

After Coventry (where live exports ceased later in 1995), she and Avery looked around for a new cause. They fixed on Consort Kennels near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, which bred beagles for laboratories. ("They were used for testing pesticides, household products - like oven cleaner - and for medical research. They were used for anything and everything," says Liz Stewart, director of Dorset Animal Rescue, and one of the earliest protesters.) "We decided to start a campaign to close it down," says James. "And we just went for it."

There were public meetings, press briefings, leaflets, local and nationally advertised demonstrations, and a relentless presence at the kennels. "In the morning as the workers went in, and in the evening when they came out, there was somebody there. It's a psychological thing, the constant presence. They knew we weren't going to go away." It was the first campaign that James had helped to organise, and after 10 months Consort closed - but not before James had been arrested for a public order offence, the kennel manager's house had been attacked, and protesters sprayed with tear gas by police. (There is no suggestion that James was involved in the attack on the house.)

"When it closed it came as a shock, because we were expecting a two- or three-year battle, and to be honest my first reaction was I cried. All I could think about were the beagles we hadn't saved, that I'd watched being driven out from Consort in the vans, and there was nothing I could do about them. Those beagles I knew were already dead or were going to die shortly - but then on the other hand I felt enormous joy as well. It was a really strange feeling, very sad and very happy at the same time..."

Almost immediately, James and her supporters turned their firepower on Hill Grove Farm. Small and intermittent protests were already being staged there by, according to one source, mostly elderly cat-lovers who were making "no impact whatsoever". "We just said: 'Would you like us to give you a hand?'" James recalls - and suddenly Christopher Brown found himself and his farm at the centre of a firestorm of leaflets, public meetings, all-night vigils, and mass demonstrations which drew coaches from as far away as Scotland and animal-rights sympathisers from Holland and Germany. Naming the campaign "Save the Hillgrove Cats", James and Avery built up a mailing list of 8,000, and delivered chest-high stacks of petitions - nearly half a million signatures - to the Home Office.

Then, on 18 April last year, Brown's house was attacked. "We were under siege," he recalls. "They did thousands of pounds' worth of damage to the house. It was absolutely unbelievable. Rocks were banging on the slates and through the windows, front and back. We sheltered - my wife had to sit behind the staircase, and I was comforting the dogs in the office, watching the CCTV. It was absolutely abominable. That is not the way to improve animal welfare"

Thames Valley Police spokesman Richard Goodfellow says that "unbelievable damage" was caused that day. "It was an absolute riot," he says. "There were something like 900 protesters, the real hardcore. They ripped down fences, did a lot of damage to police vehicles, and about a dozen officers were injured. About 15 people were later jailed for violent disorder - a lot of them with no previous form at all. Good students with A-levels, that sort of thing, got a year or nine months."

He adds that James was not involved in the attack. (In all, she has been arrested three times, and been fined for minor public-order offences.) "She may have been there but certainly not in any violent capacity," says Goodfellow. "She's not really like that. She always stayed away from any direct action - she'd be the media spokesman really. So she never [caused us] any major problems at Hill Grove - the hardcore ALF did that."

Describing James and Avery as "very, very passionate believers in their cause", he says: "Our job was to listen to what they had to say, but also to respect Farmer Brown as a lawful businessman - and the local residents were a key consideration too. So it was a difficult operation. It was a continual balancing act."

As the only commercial breeder of laboratory cats in Britain, Brown had a lucrative monopoly. His animals were valuable to the industry because they were guaranteed free of any viruses or infections which could distort laboratory tests. Kittens would sell, he says, for between £200 and £300 each, and a year-old cat for £400. Hill Grove's accounts for 1997 reportedly showed an after-tax profit of nearly £109,000 - a spectacular sum for a smallish arable farm of 300 acres.

"It was a very healthy business," says James. "And we know he tried to sell it before he closed down. But they wouldn't buy it, because we came with it. The protesters came as part of the package."

Brown's business was, of course, legal, but James is sick of that argument. "We get that all the time," she sighs. "'It's legal.' The obvious answer is that just because something's legal doesn't mean it's right. Until a few years ago it was legal for a man to rape his wife. How could that ever have been legal? But it was. And hanging. And slavery."

EARLIER THIS month, the successful rehoming of the 800 Hill Grove cats was featured, with a heartwarming voiceover, on the always heartwarming "And finally..." tailpiece of the ITN evening news. And they were featured again, even more heartwarmingly, on Rolf Harris's Animal Hospital series on BBC1 a few days later. It's a kind of media U-turn with which James is wearily familiar.

"When you're in the process of closing something down, [some of] the Press has a go at the protesters, and you're called 'animal-rights fanatics', and all the rest of it. But as soon as the place is closed, suddenly you're heroes, and everybody's happy. It was like that with Consort Kennels - we were 'fanatics' at the time, but after it closed it was on Central TV News as one of their "Highlights of the Year", with the beagles coming out. So everyone wants the animals to be free, and happy and safe from experiments - but while you're actually doing it, it's different.

"At the Hill Grove demos, there were families, and children, and teachers, and doctors, and vets - we had vets marching with us. And the vivisection industry doesn't like to see that - ordinary people coming out in support. They like to label you as an animal-rights nutter with a balaclava. And the media, too - I remember doing an interview at Coventry, and the interviewer asked me: 'Is there anybody here with dreadlocks?' They like to focus on that."

Her disenchantment with official channels is profound. She dismisses the Home Office inspectorate, which is charged with seeing that laboratories comply with the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, as a "waste of time", and alleges that on some occasions laboratories have had advance warning of inspections. As for Parliament, "There are all these nonsense things they can do, like read from the telephone book to talk a bill out, like they did with fox-hunting. That's totally non-democratic, and just crazy. But whenever you feel like things are getting on top of you, you can think: there are no dolphinariums in this country now; fur's just about finished; hunting's just about finished; circuses have had it ... and for how many years have people said: 'The animals wouldn't do the tricks unless they were happy and were rewarded'? But now we've all seen the Chipperfield video." [During which, among other things that were secretly filmed, an elephant was shown being beaten with an iron bar.]

Another undercover video, filmed at Huntingdon Life Sciences in Cambridgeshire and broadcast on Channel 4 two years ago, showed staff kicking, punching, shaking and laughing at beagles in their care. "Every time someone goes undercover they find appalling cruelty. And so many times the people who have these animals at their mercy are laughing at them. Even if you believe vivisection is right, why are these people laughing? What kind of sick people are they? They must be so desensitised, I don't think they should be left in charge of children. And when you see it, you think, 'That's wrong. I've got to do something about it.'"

She gathers up her things. "I'll be doing this for the rest of my life," she says. "I don't think I'll see the end of vivisection in my lifetime. But it will end. I know it will.