Scientists speak out against violence by animal-rights activists

By Larry Gordon
Los Angeles Times / April 19, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - As soon as he heard his car alarm blare and saw the orange glow through his bedroom window, University of California-Los Angeles neuroscientist J. David Jentsch knew his fears had come true.

His 2006 Volvo, parked next to his house on the West Side of Los Angeles, had been set ablaze and destroyed in an early morning attack March 7. Jentsch had become the latest victim in a series of violent incidents targeting University of California scientists who use animals in biomedical research.

"Obviously, someone who does the work I do in this environment expects that it's possible, indeed likely, that it would have happened," said Jentsch, who uses vervet monkeys in his research on treatments for schizophrenia and drug addiction. Before the attack, he had received no threats and had taken only limited precautions, including keeping his photo off the Internet.

After similar incidents, other UCLA scientists have become almost reclusive as security and public curiosity around them grew. Three years ago, another UCLA neuroscientist, weary of harassment and threats to his family, abandoned animal research altogether, sending an e-mail to an animal-rights website that read: "You win."

But Jentsch has decided to push back.

Jentsch, an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry, has founded an organization at UCLA to voice support for research that uses animals in what he calls a humane, regulated way. He is organizing a pro-research campus rally Wednesday, a day chosen because animal-rights activists, who contend that his research involves the torture and needless killing of primates, had scheduled their own UCLA protest that day.

"People always say: `Don't respond. If you respond, that will give [the attackers] credibility,' " Jentsch said. "But being silent wasn't making us feel safer."

Speakers are expected to include Tom Holder, a leader of Pro-Test, a British group formed in 2006 in support of animal research. Also likely to appear are patients suffering from illnesses that researchers say might one day be cured by treatments discovered in such experiments.

The new UCLA organization is named UCLA Pro-Test. Its message, Jentsch said, is that ending animal research "would be devastating, absolutely devastating, in the loss of knowledge and its practical applications to human health."

In the past three years, UCLA has reported at least 10 arsons, other acts of vandalism against professors and researchers, along with many unrealized threats. In February, four activists were arrested on allegations that they were involved in attacking and harassing animal researchers at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, but no arrests have been made in any of the UCLA cases, according to FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller.

Jerry Vlasak, a hysician and frequent spokesman for the animal-rights movement, said he and fellow activists do not do not know who is behind the attacks, although he sympathizes with the actions.

Vlasak said that Jentsch's new group is a publicity stunt aimed at preserving federal funding and turning public attention from the nature of the researcher, which involves addicting monkeys to methamphetamine. Vlasak and others said they want to meet Jentsch in a public debate, but the UCLA professor said he was willing to do so only with people who don't condone illegal acts.