Animal research: We live in fear every day

Families linked to animal research describe the constant terror of death threats, hoax bombs and paint attacks
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The Independent Online

The large picture windows of the converted farmhouse that Lucy Chisholm shares with her husband and eight-year-old daughter make the most of the vast expanse of sky stretching above fields and low hedgerows.

But it is not hard to imagine how it would feel in the dead of night when, right outside those windows, there is a gang of animal rights extremists who have repeatedly threatened to kill you. "You think of terrorists as people with guns," Mrs Chisholm - who has requested that her real name not be used for fear of reprisals - told The Independent on Sunday. "These people do as much harm to you mentally as they would if they were pointing a weapon."

The family spoke out to cast a light on the torment suffered by those whose partners work in research involving animals. Across the UK, scores of families have been targeted by animal rights extremists, and, despite changes in the law aimed at preventing the worst attacks, the targets still live in the shadow of frequent siege.

For the Chisholms, it started three years ago with some letters, a few polite, many abusive. Then came hate mail, death threats, noisy night protests, and eventually a hoax explosive which took the bomb squad four hours to dismantle.

The target was Mrs Chisholm's husband, who works for a Japanese company which had used the controversial animal testing firm Huntingdon Life Sciences. But it is Mrs Chisholm, 40, and her daughter who have borne the brunt of the hate campaign. The tactics the extremists employed were ruthless. On a holiday in France, they took a phone call from Mr Chisholm's firm. A letter had arrived alleging he was a paedophile. "I was shocked" she said. "It's a horrible thing to call anyone, worse than a murderer. Even then, I didn't realise the enormity of it."

There were further claims, this time that her husband was a killer, painted in 3ft-high letters, on the lanes along which she drove her daughter to school. "It was the day after that I started not to sleep. You worry about what they are going to do next."

Her husband hired a security guard, and installed CCTV and a panic button connected to the local police station. But the attacks kept coming.

Mrs Chisholm was in the house with her daughter and another child when the extremists struck again. "It was horrendous.They had thrown paint over the guard's car. They had thrown glass bottles filled with paint at the house, they had covered my daughter's toys in thick, red emulsion paint. The dogs were covered in it. That was the end of me. I slowly went to pieces. I was scared of everything."

Eventually, she was forced to leave the job she loved, working with deaf children. After nine months of continual harassment, the attacks began to ease off. But the family still receive silent phone calls and threatening letters.

One weekend last month, Nicki Smith and her family were preparing for another spell in the firing line at their home a couple of hundred miles away from the Chisholms. Visitors had been cancelled, the dogs and horses were inside, the security cameras around the farmhouse were running. She, her husband and two children were steeling themselves for the latest anti-vivisection protest, which would take place a few hundred yards from their home. "You go into shut-down mode," said Mrs Smith, 49, who also requested that her real name not be used."

She and her family are deemed targets because her husband runs a company linked to animal laboratories. The attacks have destroyed normal family life.

Karen Gardner, a mother of three children aged 12, 10 and three, from Wiltshire, knows exactly the kind of pressures the Smiths and Chisholms have endured. A former communications officer for pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline, Ms Gardner, 44, became the victim of animal rights extremists when she was eight months pregnant with her first child. She has since changed jobs. The family suffered death threats, paint attacks and - like the others - a bomb hoax. The tide may be turning, however. Ms Gardner believes that the stealing of Gladys Hammond's remains from her grave in Staffordshire, has changed public opinion of animal rights activists. "It horrified people," she said.

THE TERROR GROUPS

In the UK, it is estimated that 2,500 animal rights activists are ready to take the law into their hands at any time, with a hardcore of 250 capable of carrying out major arson attacks. Extremist groups known to operate in this country include the following:

The Animal Liberation Front: A militant group which is the hub for Britain's animal rights activists. Formed in the UK in the 1970s, it has since spread to the US. Its tactics include arson, use of explosives and physical intimidation.

The Animal Rights Militia: An extreme offshoot of the ALF formed in the 1980s, it desecrated the grave of an elderly relative of one of the owners of a guinea pig farm. Police recovered Gladys Hammond's remains earlier this month and four activists have been jailed for their part in what the judge called a "campaign of terror".

Gateway to Hell: This group has dedicated itself to a violent campaign against companies that it holds responsible for the transportation of live animals for laboratory research.

The Justice Department: Another extension of the ALF, it has been behind attacks on companies involved in the live export trade.