Animal rights activists showed up with blaring sirens and bullhorns at 3 a.m. one day at the home of an executive of a Los Angeles software company.
“We’ll be back, scumbag,” Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty said on its Web site later in the day. “Denny, we know where you live, we know where you work, and we’ll make your life hell until you pull out of HLS.”
The executive doesn’t work for the group’s target, Huntingdon Life Sciences. His firm just sells computer software to the animal testing lab. But SHAC plastered his neighborhood with photographs of a mutilated dog, and posted his home and work telephone numbers on the Internet while inviting “hundreds of activists” to call him day and night.
SHAC says its home visits to people with even tenuous ties to animal research have “broken new ground in the struggle for animal liberation.” Similar tactics are quickly being adopted by other environmental extremist groups that stop just short of physical violence in terrorizing families and entire neighborhoods in the name of protecting animals and trees.
“It becomes a prototype for attacking any kind of business that does anything any group doesn’t like,” said Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. “It’s likely that we are just witnessing the beginning of a very serious problem.”
For instance, 18 Santa Cruz neighbors had their sport utility vehicles spray-painted with anti-war slogans overnight by members of the Earth Liberation Front last month.
An Earth First! activist plans to adopt the techniques to shut down logging by Pacific Lumber Co. on California’s North Coast.
“My idea was those same tactics can be very effective against the destroyer of old-growth forests,” said Rodney Coronado, a former Animal Liberation Front member who spent more than four years in prison for fire-bombing animal research laboratories at Michigan State University in 1992.
The tactics are also being eyed by opponents of globalization, supporters of fair wages -- any social justice movement that sees corporations as an enemy, said Kevin Jonas, SHAC organizer.
The tactics were pioneered by British activists who recognized that behind every faceless corporation, “there are people who have homes and liability and privacy issues,” Jonas said.
Court orders in California, Illinois, New Jersey and New York, a federal grand jury investigation and the arrests of a dozen SHAC activists in Boston last fall haven’t stopped an activity that can skirt the legal protections of free speech or stray into vandalism and terrorism.
An Internet technique borrowed from abortion opponents gives the campaigns unprecedented reach while permitting a degree of legal separation from illegal activities that might result. SHAC’s Web site, for instance, posts a state-by-state, point-and-click map listing Huntingdon affiliates.
“We’re seeing sort of a copycat effect within the ecoterror movement,” said Kelly Stoner, executive director of the Oregon-based watchdog group Stop Eco-Violence!
Earth First! activists occupied a Portland, Ore., bank in July and urged a boycott because two of the bank’s board members are timber executives. And last fall, another group discussed targeting a timber company’s insurance carriers and finding out where company officials live, attend church and send their children to school, she said.
“One has to wonder where it’s going to stop because SHAC’s success is definitely not going unnoticed,” Stoner said.
The spin-offs were apparent during World Week for Animals In Labs last month.
An offshoot so new it doesn’t yet have a name claimed responsibility for a demonstration outside the New York City home of Huntingdon Chief Executive Officer Andrew Baker.
Near the UCLA campus, up to 50 masked members of Students for Animal Liberation demonstrated outside the homes of UCLA researchers, one of whom reported broken windows and a street lamp.
But it’s home visits like those targeting the software executive and two other Los Angeles executives who do business with Huntingdon that have prompted dozens of firms to sever their ties with the research lab.
“This is a new tactic of political extremism that we’re not used to in this country. It’s simply never been done before,” said Richard Michaelson, Huntingdon’s chief financial officer.
In England last summer, activists beat a Huntingdon managing director and sprayed a caustic liquid in the face of another Huntingdon employee.
There have been no known physical assaults on individuals in the United States, but Michaelson and others fear increasingly violent rhetoric means that it’s only a matter of time.
“Terrorism isn’t so much what you do to someone -- it’s what you make people think,” said Michaelson, himself the target of a recent home visit.
SHAC and ALF oppose violence against any animal, including humans, Jonas said. But he argued that inducing human terror “pales by comparison to what these animals feel” during research.
“We’re not a criminal enterprise, we’re not terrorists -- we’re people who care about animals,” said Jonas, who went by the name Kjonaas when he got his start as a student targeting University of Minnesota animal researchers in 1999.
Jonas said SHAC is exercising its free speech rights. But he wouldn’t condemn others who turn to property damage or violence: “I think there’s a time and a place for every action.”
The Boston activists were charged with threatening to burn the home of an insurance executive who does business with Huntingdon. He and others found their Social Security numbers and other personal information posted on SHAC’s Web site -- a practice that for a time last fall spread even to neighbors of an Edmond, Okla., broker who refused to stop marketing Huntingdon stock.
On March 6, Jonas appeared with Earth First’s Coronado at an animal rights conference at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
On March 24, Coronado and four others blocked the driveway to the Eureka-area home of tree climber Eric Schatz, accusing him of endangering the lives of 18 illegal tree-sitters Pacific Lumber had hired him to forcibly remove from its redwood trees.
The activists also distributed a “Wanted” poster for Schatz, giving directions to his house and encouraging visits there. Neighbors subsequently reported activists in the woods along Schatz’s property line.
Unlike other targets, Pacific Lumber responded with a television, radio and newspaper advertising campaign denouncing the generally pacifist protesters for launching “a terrorist attack on our communities, jobs and our way of life.”
“We wanted to shine the light of public scrutiny on all of his comments, rather than just hoping he’ll go away,” said Jim Branham, company spokesman.
Prosecutors have so far decided that the home visits don’t violate the law. But Coronado said future home visits aimed at loggers and tree climbers aren’t likely, if only because they seem likely to escalate into violence.
Instead, he hopes to organize a SHAC-like campaign against Pacific Lumber’s suppliers, customers and others he said are “more susceptible to caving in.”