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UCLA to Protect Animal Research

Times Staff Writers

After an attempted firebombing near the home of one UCLA researcher and repeated harassment that pushed another professor to halt his primate research, UCLA’s acting chancellor said Friday that he was taking steps to protect the university and its faculty from extremists in the animal rights movement.

Norman Abrams, who became acting chancellor July 1, said animal rights activists in recent months have mounted what he called an escalating campaign against UCLA professors, researchers and their families.

“These activities have risen to the level of domestic terrorism, and that’s what we should call them,” Abrams said in an interview Friday, as he announced a series of actions, including plans for stepped-up security at faculty homes.

He also announced that UCLA would double -- to $60,000 -- the size of the reward the FBI has offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the attempted fire-bombing of a Bel-Air home June 30.

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In that incident, a crude explosive was left beside a house occupied by a 70-year-old woman and her tenant. The FBI has said the device, which was lighted but failed to ignite, was powerful enough to have killed the occupants.

It also was apparently planted at the wrong house. The intended target was Lynn Fairbanks, a UCLA professor in the departments of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences who studies primate behavior.

“On the night of June 30, we paid a visit to Lynn Fairbanks’ home,” read a communique posted to the website of the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which often acts as a voice for the underground Animal Liberation Front and other extremist animal rights groups.

The posting said she conducted “painful addiction experiments” on monkeys.

In a brief interview Friday, Fairbanks said the activists’ allegations were false. She focuses on primate behavior and the ways vervet monkeys interact with one another, she said.

“I don’t do invasive research; I don’t kill or torture animals,” said Fairbanks, who has worked at UCLA for 30 years.

Also, Abrams and other UCLA officials have said university researchers strictly follow federal laws that regulate the use of animals and ensure that they are treated humanely. They said that all research projects involving animals are subjected to a rigorous application and review process and that federal and state agencies regularly inspect such projects.

The FBI and other law enforcement officials, along with national organizations supporting animal research, said the increasing numbers and severity of the local incidents were consistent with a pattern of escalation by both animal rights and environmental extremist groups.

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Nationwide, the two kinds of organizations have claimed responsibility for about 1,200 criminal incidents over about the last 10 years, resulting in millions of dollars in damage and monetary loss, said Laura Eimiller, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Los Angeles office.

In recent years, she said, “we have seen an escalation in their rhetoric and the violence associated with their crimes.”

Abrams said the Bel-Air incident, along with the decision this month by neurobiology professor Dario Ringach to stop his primate research after several years of harassment and threats to his family, led to the announcement. Abrams said he was deeply saddened by Ringach’s decision, describing him as a promising young professor, doing significant -- and the chancellor emphasized, legal -- research.

Ringach, whose work involved studies of the brain and the ways it receives information from the retina, sent an e-mail Aug. 4 to the Animal Liberation Press Office.

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Posted on the website, the e-mail reads, in part: “You win. Effective immediately, I am no longer doing animal research.”

Despite that decision, Abrams stressed that UCLA remained committed to pursuing biomedical research involving animals of all kinds, which he said has been central to advances in medical knowledge. About 750 researchers on the campus are involved in about 950 animal research projects, a UCLA spokesman said.

Abrams said the tactics employed by the activists against Ringach and others at UCLA have included explicit threats against the researchers and their families; repeated, late-night phone calls; noisy demonstrations at their homes and labs; leafleting of their neighborhoods; and vandalism.

Their names and addresses have been publicized on various websites, with memos inviting activists to take action against them.

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Abrams argued that such actions fall outside areas of free speech protected by the 1st Amendment.

The acting chancellor, a longtime UCLA law professor whose academic specialties include federal criminal law and antiterrorism law, outlined the steps he plans to take, which will also be detailed in a full-page ad scheduled to run Monday in UCLA’s student newspaper, the Daily Bruin.

He said some of the specifics will be worked out by a task force of administrators and faculty that he hopes will report to him within six weeks. Others were already underway, he said. The measures include:

* Trying to act more quickly to warn researchers of possible threats.

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* Beefing up security, including trying to cut the response time of campus and local law enforcement to incidents or threats at researchers’ homes.

* Exploring legal actions that might be taken against the activists, including possible civil lawsuits by the university.

* Trying to help shape the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, legislation under consideration in Congress that advocates say would help law enforcement combat extremists. Abrams said he hoped the legislation would include civil remedies, perhaps modeled on laws employed to file suit against antiabortion activists who have used violence.

UCLA faculty leaders praised Abrams’ plan Friday.

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“The chancellor is right to take these bold moves to protect the campus community from harassment and violence,” said Adrienne Lavine, an engineering professor who heads UCLA’s faculty senate.

But a spokeswoman for an animal rights organization took issue with Abrams’ statements, while emphasizing that her group had no direct connection with the Animal Liberation Front.

“That’s just sad commentary, when people killing animals are calling other people terrorists,” said Camille Hankins of the North American Animal Liberation Press Office.

The front and similar groups are loose-knit and deeply underground, with members operating in autonomous cells.

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“There is no telling what the response [to UCLA’s statements] will be,” Hankins said. “There is clearly a pretty active cell there. There have been quite a few underground activities and no indication that is going to stop.”

The front has claimed responsibility for several threats and acts of vandalism in Southern California, including bomb threats at four Red Lobster restaurants and a Torrance firm that supplies biomedical researchers.

Two activists, Pamelyn Ferdin and Jerry Vlasak, were convicted in May for demonstrating in front of the home of David Diliberto, a Los Angeles animals services official, in 2004, according to a spokesman for the city attorney’s office. Vlasak runs the Animal Liberation Press Office in Southern California. Calls to his office and cellphone were not answered. Hankins, who is based in New York, said he may be overseas.


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