Animal-Rights Activism Turns Rabid

Attacks on drug companies and university labs are chilling research

On July 30 the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair unveiled its latest plan to combat extremists operating on British soil. Irish Republican Army militants? Islamist radicals? No: animal-rights activists.

The term may conjure images of prim British matrons collecting donations for the local dog shelter. Instead, think combat boots and black balaclavas. This more menacing breed of animal lover is targeting drug companies and university research labs with tactics that range from the bothersome (tire slashing) to the criminal (pipe bombs). Local press reports estimate that these groups are costing Britain some $2 billion a year in investment. By tightening existing harassment laws, and stepping up police enforcement, the Blair government is determined to put an end to what Home Office Minister Caroline Flint called "animal extremists' reign of terror."

Britain's $8 billion biomedical research industry is under siege. The country boasts the world's toughest regulations restricting the use of animals in medical research. But that's not enough for groups campaigning for an end to all animal experiments. Attacks of pharmaceutical companies and university research labs -- their staff, suppliers, and even their shareholders -- are on the rise. According to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, there were 235 incidents of criminal damage in the 12 months through June, up from 84 in the previous 12 months. In some cases, Britain's animal-rights extremists are hounding their targets right across the Atlantic, while others are sharing their playbooks with U.S. activists.

After enduring years of abuse in relative silence, British pharma has begun to speak out. "We are being terrorized," said GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK ) CEO Jean-Pierre Garnier at the company's July 28 results meeting. Over the past two years animal-rights extremists have targeted GSK's senior management by staging protests outside their homes or sending letters to neighbors claiming the executives were pedophiles. Garnier says his company has spent "tens of millions of pounds" to protect staff and labs from militants.


Britain's animal-rights militants are increasingly going after universities, which can't afford to spend as much on security as big corporations. In January, Cambridge University dropped plans to build a $44 million primate research facility after enduring a yearlong campaign by a group called Speak. Now Speak's focus is on Oxford University, which is building a $33 million biomedical research lab on campus. On July 19, construction company Montpellier Group, concrete maker RMC Group, and Lawton Building Engineering Services all pulled out of the project following months of harassment by animal-rights activists. Speak did not return phone calls seeking comment. "The nightmare scenario is that the activists keep targeting universities and labs until they eventually knock out all the animal research at major British universities," says Dr. Mark Matfield, executive director of the Research Defense Society, an association representing scientists and academics. "But things don't need to go that far. Once people start worrying then confidence in Britain will start going."

Such talk is music to the ears of the activists. "You can tell how effective you are by how your enemies react -- and our enemies are hysterical," says Greg Avery, spokesperson for Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a group founded in 1999 to target Huntingdon Life Sciences Ltd., once Europe's largest animal testing company. Avery swears SHAC only resorts to peaceful means of protest. Still, its campaign against Huntingdon led the company in 2002 to incorporate in Maryland, which has more stringent shareholder privacy laws than Britain.

The new law-enforcement measures strengthen harassment laws by, for instance, allowing police to arrest protesters demonstrating outside someone's home. Still, a spokesperson for British drugmaker AstraZeneca questioned "whether the current penalties will be a sufficient deterrent."

The activists, though, are not staying put. In June, the FBI warned delegates at the annual meeting of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in San Francisco that it had evidence the group's members were potential targets of extremists. Four months prior, Emeryville (Calif.)-based biotech Chiron Corp. sued SHAC-USA, the U.S. affiliate of the British group, alleging its involvement in two pipe bombings at Chiron's campus, a charge the group refutes.

One side claims the scientific necessity, even moral duty, to experiment on animals in pursuit of medical advancement. The other side condemns what it says is another heartrending abuse by the corporate Establishment, and likens its crusade to the anti-slavery and women's rights movements. The fact that those previous noble causes were about people is a point lost on the activists.

By Kerry Capell in London

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