Animal rights extremists are launching an increasing number of violent attacks and making greater use of intimidation methods, figures show. The number of instances of damage to public and private property by the fanatics more than doubled in the first three months of the year compared to the similar period in 2003.
Between January and March, there were 46 recorded incidents, including 34 attacks on vehicles mainly involving corrosive fluid, shows research by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry. Intimidation techniques included 32 visits to the homes of company directors, up from 10 in 2003, and 24 "blockades" by phone, fax or e-mail, aimed at disrupting communication, compared to seven last year.
A flurry of arrests in March stalled the rising levels of attacks, but the violent protests have had an impact, with 22 companies cutting their links with animal research in the first quarter of the year.
"Pouring corrosive fluid, like brake fluid or paint stripper, on vehicles, and spraying graffiti on homes and roadways seem to be the favourite forms of attack for these criminals," a spokesman for the ABPI said. "The arrests may have helped reduce attacks, but none of these cases has yet led to a conviction."
Last week, the government announced it is establishing a national centre aimed at reducing the number of tests on animals and raising standards of welfare. The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research will look at options, including computer simulation and experiments on cultured cells. The Science minister, Lord Sainsbury, also announced that funding for the "three Rs" - replacement, refinement and reduction - would double to £660,000 in this financial year.
But some animal rights activists said the move did not go far enough. Andrew Tyler, the director of the animal rights group Animal Aid, called the centre a "fig leaf".
Dr Mark Matfield, of the newly formed Victims of Animal Rights Extremism (Vare), said the ABPI figures confirmed their suspicions that the situation is growing worse, and called for tougher penalties for activists who overstep the law. "It's only the isolated big incidents that get publicity, but there are a lot of people literally living in terror," he said.
"I've been watching animal rights activists for 15 years now, and what I've seen is that a slap on the wrist doesn't deter them. They regard a few months inside almost as a badge of honour. The only thing that actually works is longer sentences of four years or more."
Vare is campaigning for a new animal rights extremism act, along the lines of the legislation used to deal with football hooliganism. "If you had specific legislation, you could make the penalties more severe for acts of animal rights extremism directed at places of medical research, without increasing legislation against protests per se which might infringe civil liberties," Dr Matfield said.
He added that the three R's approach was a good idea in principle. "No one wants to do experiments on animals. We want to do medical research, and if we can do it without animals so much the better."