How threats, firebombs and assault are sending an animal testing lab to the dogs

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The Independent Online

As an act of terrorism, a man being sprayed in the eyes with ammonia and pushed to the floor as he returned home from work ranks low on the Richter scale of urban violence.

As an act of terrorism, a man being sprayed in the eyes with ammonia and pushed to the floor as he returned home from work ranks low on the Richter scale of urban violence.

It was painful for him, and distressing for his wife and children, who watched helplessly as the two balaclava-wearing attackers went on to smash several windows and kick in the front door.

Ordinarily, such an attack - two days before Christmas - would be condemned and quickly forgotten. But not this one. This was seen as a disturbing new front in the war between animal rights activists and Britain's biggest animal testing laboratory.

In this war, there have been death threats, firebombed cars, evil whispers on the telephone and vividly descriptive hate mail. But, until this attack, there had been no physical violence against people. Now, it seems, the gloves are off.

On one side of the battle lines is Huntingdon Life Sciences in Cambridgeshire, a company which tests drugs on animals to check their safety before human consumption. On the other is Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (Shac), a coalition of animal-rights activists which has taken protest to new levels of sophistication, levels which terrify company directors and hit them where it hurts - in the pocket. Huntingdon shares traded at over £3.50 in 1990. Today, they are worth 2.75p.

It was the turn of the Royal Bank of Scotland, National Westminster Bank and Tesco to feel the wrath of Shac yesterday. At a time when Huntingdon is virtually on its knees with a £22m overdraft, the Royal Bank of Scotland (owner of Nat West, which authorised the original loan) extended its credit for the fourth time in less than six months, this time for 14 days, while the company seeks new finance in America.

"The only thing standing between Huntingdon and going bust is that loan," said Greg Avery, one of Shac's organisers. "So we're going to take our protests to the Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest. There will be sit-ins, demonstrations and poster campaigns. We'll make so much noise outside some branches that they won't be able to do business.

"And we'll target Tesco. All their financial products, from personal banking to car insurance, are provided by the Royal Bank of Scotland. That's the bank's Achilles' heel; Tesco has a strict policy on animal testing. Their customers won't like it when we tell them their banker is propping up a company that kills 500 animals in experiments every day."

It is this tactical acumen that has made the year-long campaign so successful but also so frightening. First, employees were shouted at, spat on and threatened at home. More than 10 have had their cars firebombed in the middle of the night. Some are receiving counselling, others have quit, unable to cope with messages such as: "We know which school your kid goes to."

Then the protesters aimed at directors of Huntingdon's clients. After receiving threats against them or their families, some caved and withdrew their business. In other cases, demonstrators staged noisy protests outside the homes of workers or directors of companies associated with Huntingdon, sticking up posters and knocking on doors, asking people if they knew what business their neighbour was in.

Next, prominent shareholders were hit. Many - including the Labour Party's superannuation fund - sold up to avoid hassle. Among them was Phillips & Drew, a large pension fund manager. West LB Panmure resigned as Huntingdon's stockbroker. Schroder's, a merchant bank, sold out. The Bank of New York offloaded more than 7 million Huntingdon shares.

In a move that dismayed City observers, HSBC (formerly the Midland Bank) announced last month that it would no longer act as trustee for the company's shareholders. The bank's move, said Lord Taverne, a Liberal Democrat peer, was "a surrender to terrorism and was an act of social irresponsibility.

"It is sheer terrorism and people are caving in under its weight," said a Huntingdon director. He did not want to be named because he, too, has received death threats against him and his family.

"They are very clever at undermining us financially, but the way they do it - through threats, intimidation, blackmail - is terrifying. Yes, we conduct tests on animals because government legislation worldwide requires pharmaceutical companies to test on animals before humans. But the propaganda they put out about us is just lies.

"I do feel some people have betrayed us, just pulled out and run away. But there is still a good spirit here. A lot of people still believe the work we do benefits mankind."

Some employees have stayed on in spite of extreme intimidation. The man who became the first physical attack victim was a senior manager. He was back at work the next day. Others find it more difficult.

One employee, a female scientist aged 57, described how her car was torched last May outside her bedroom window.

"I can still see that car on fire and at times I dream that I am in it," she said. "I am still afraid and I cannot stop wondering whether they are coming back. You become very edgy and you look around all the time."

After suffering panic attacks, she changed her mobile-phone number to head off the threatening calls. But they soon began again. Somehow, her tormentors got her new number and sent her a text message that read: "We got you, you old slag."

The Animal Liberation Front stole more than 50 hunting beagles from the grounds of Wye College in Kent last week. And four letterbombs packed with nails and ball-bearings have been sent to potential victims, sometimes with only loose links to farming or livestock sales. One, near Congleton, Cheshire, was opened by Leah Cain, six, who was, mercifully, only slightly injured.

So, is it fair to terrorise families, to send threats, hate male, terrifying messages, to attack people in front of their children? "We don't condone any of that, but I'm not surprised it's happening," said Mr Avery. "You should hear people outside Huntingdon Life Sciences, shouting that the place should be burned down and these people attacked. That isn't me saying that; it's Joe Public. "

Mr Avery and his friends believe testing could be as efficiently carried out on cell cultures as animals. The extent to which Joe Public, ever hungry for more effective medicines, agrees or cares is debatable.