Bombings anger, worry scientists

Times Staff Writer

Two firebomb attacks last week on UC Santa Cruz scientists who conduct animal research have angered and worried academics throughout the UC system, who said their work has broad public support and that they will not be intimidated by bombers who crossed the line by targeting families.

"It is outrageous when people's families are targeted," said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. "This is incredibly serious because it could have led to loss of life. It's chilling."

But Block, a biologist who uses mice in his research on circadian rhythms, said he expects the violent attacks to deter few scientists from working with animals.

"There is deep concern in our community," he said. "People are concerned about their safety, but that is not affecting their work. They are going to continue doing the research."

The incendiary devices that went off in Santa Cruz struck three minutes apart just before 6 a.m. Aug. 2. One destroyed a car outside the home of a researcher who has not been publicly identified. The other exploded on the front porch of researcher David Feldheim's home. As smoke filled the house, he, his wife and their two children fled down an emergency rope ladder. Feldheim injured his feet when he hit the ground.

A sprinkler over the front door helped suppress the blaze and, university officials said, kept it from spreading to other houses in the suburban neighborhood of attached dwellings.

"This is the first attack on animal researchers we are aware of where there were children in the home," said Bruce Margon, UC Santa Cruz's vice chancellor for research. "Everyone agrees that is totally unconscionable."

Investigators said they have collected a large amount of forensic evidence from the two bomb sites and are treating the cases as attempted homicides. The city and university police departments, the FBI, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the state fire marshal's office are participating in the investigation.

For the last few years, University of California scientists who use laboratory animals in their research have been harassed and threatened by activists who contend that the researchers are torturing animals.

Protesters, sometimes wearing masks or wielding bullhorns, have confronted researchers in public or shouted obscenities outside their homes in the middle of the night. They have set a van ablaze at UC Irvine and flooded a UCLA scientist's home with her garden hose. And they have planted bombs outside UCLA researchers' homes that caused minor damage or didn't explode.

In 2006, a UCLA neurobiology professor announced that he was stopping his primate research because of harassment and threats to his family.

Scientists and university leaders say the use of laboratory animals in biomedical research has broad public support and is financed in large part by taxpayer money.

They say the use of animals in such research is essential to develop treatments and cures for many ailments, including cancer, AIDS and Alzheimer's disease.

Virtually all Americans -- and their pets -- have benefited in some way from medical research involving laboratory animals, supporters of such research say.

The majority of the animals are bred specifically for that purpose and regulations govern their use and treatment, university officials said.

Few of the animals are primates. At UCLA, for example, more than 95% of lab animals are rodents, said campus spokesman Phil Hampton.

But some animal rights activists contend that the use of any animals in research is morally wrong, and that aggressive tactics, including violence, are justified in attempting to end the practice.

Jerry Vlasak, a Los Angeles physician and frequent spokesman for the animal rights movement, maintains that researchers bring the violence on themselves and that any harm to humans is minimal compared to the suffering of lab animals.

"UC Santa Cruz may consider themselves an institution of higher education, but they are also an institution of animal torture and killing," Vlasak wrote on his website, the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, after the latest attacks. "It's regrettable that certain scientists are willing to put their families at risk by choosing to do wasteful animal experiments in this day and age."

Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, was among those who condemned the latest bombings. He defended the research being done by Feldheim, who receives funding from the agency.

"Terrorism against researchers and institutions as well as their children and other family members is not to be tolerated," Zerhouni said in a joint statement with Norka Ruiz Bravo, the agency's deputy director for extramural research. "Threats to research using animals also threatens the health of the nation."

Feldheim's research focuses on mice brain abnormalities that occur during prenatal development and could lead to knowledge about how to "rewire" the human brain or spinal cord after damage from injury or disease, National Institutes of Health administrators said. They also emphasized that federally supported scientists who use animals in biomedical research must meet rigorous standards governing their treatment and use.

At the University of California, most of the incidents have occurred at three campuses -- UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz.

The UC system is sponsoring legislation aimed at reducing the harassment by strengthening trespassing laws and making it easier for police to arrest protesters on a researcher's property.

Assemblyman Gene Mullin (D-San Mateo), who is carrying the bill, said the measure would prohibit trespassing that has "the intent to chill or interfere with academic freedom."

He noted that researchers' homes have increasingly become the target of protests as universities have strengthened security at campus labs.

"It's going to stop masked people from interfering with children's birthday parties or masked people on someone's lawn with bullhorns," he said. "It's a signal and it gives local authorities a little more oomph."

Nicole Baumgarth, an associate professor at UC Davis, is one of thousands of UC faculty members and graduate students who use animals in their research.

Baumgarth said she uses mice to study the basic mechanisms of infectious diseases, and hopes her work will lead to a cure for ailments such as malaria, which kills 1 million children a year. She said she believes the potential benefit of her research outweighs the death of the mice.

"We use mice and we kill mice every day," she said. "I haven't done it lightly and it wasn't easy for me to do, but I have made the decision for myself."

Baumgarth said she sympathizes with the animal rights movement, which she believes has improved treatment of lab animals and helped ensure that they are not used needlessly.

"I consider myself an animal rights person," she said. "The use of live beings, just because we are bigger and stronger and we can put them in a cage, I don't think it's something anyone likes doing."

But she said she was appalled by the attack against a researcher and his family, especially one who was using mice, not primates, and predicted that the bombings would prove to be a setback for the animal rights movement.

"It really crossed a line," Baumgarth said. "I think that everybody who is alive in the West has probably benefited from medical research -- yourself or your kids. They shouldn't see us as horrible people who enjoy killing animals."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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