UCLA professor stands up to violent animal rights activists

As soon as he heard his car alarm blare and saw the orange glow through his bedroom window, UCLA neuroscientist J. David Jentsch knew that his fears had come true.

His 2006 Volvo, parked next to his Westside house, 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.

"I've been as careful as you can be without being paranoid," he said.

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, carefully regulated way. He is organizing a pro-research campus rally April 22, a date chosen because animal rights activists, who contend that his research involves the torture and needless killing of primates, already had scheduled their own UCLA protest that day.

"People always say: 'Don't respond. If you respond, that will give [the attackers] credibility,' " Jentsch, 37, said in a recent interview in his UCLA office. "But being silent wasn't making us feel safer. And it's a moot point if they are coming to burn your car anyway, whether you give them credibility or not."

The incidents have traumatized many professors and students on the Westwood campus, well beyond the circle of those directly affected, said Jentsch, who was not injured in the car fire.

The rally, he said, "is an attempt to repair some of the trauma that people have felt, through solidarity and shared experience." 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, in honor of the British group. 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."

Holder, who now heads a similar U.S.-based organization called Speaking of Research, praised Jentsch's efforts. "I think it is fantastic that scientists are finally finding their voice and standing up against animal rights extremists," he said in a telephone interview from England.

In the last three years, UCLA has reported at least 10 arsons, attempted arsons and other acts of vandalism against its professors and researchers, along with many unrealized threats. In February, four animal 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. She said the incidents are under investigation as acts of domestic terrorism.

The UC system has spent several million dollars in recent years to improve security around researchers' homes, classrooms and offices. Citing security concerns, Jentsch declined to have his photo taken for this article.

Two days after Jentsch's car was burned, a profanity-laced Internet message from the murky Animal Liberation Brigade took credit for the fire, as it had for past UCLA assaults.

"The things you and others like you do to feeling, sentient monkeys is so cruel and disgusting we can't believe anyone would be able to live with themselves," the message read. "David, here's a message just for you, we will come for you when you least expect it and do a lot more damage than to your property."

Jerry Vlasak, a Los Angeles-area physician and frequent spokesman for the animal rights movement, said he and fellow activists do not participate in the attacks and do not know who is behind them, although he sympathizes with the actions.

Jentsch, according to Vlasak, "is hurting and killing non-human primates every day. And if it took harming him to make him stop torturing, it is certainly morally justifiable."

Vlasak said that Jentsch's new group is a publicity stunt aimed at preserving researchers' federal funding and turning public attention from the nature of the researcher's own work, 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 violence.

Elliot M. Katz, president of the San Rafael-based In Defense of Animals organization, said so much is already known about addiction treatment that further animal experimentation serves only to aid the pharmaceutical industry in developing unnecessary products.

Jentsch, who said he stopped taking any funding from the drug industry several years ago, responds that such claims are absurd because there is no FDA-approved treatment for methamphetamine addiction.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, a biologist who has used mice in his own research on circadian rhythms, welcomed the new Pro-Test organization.

"By refusing to be intimidated by extremists who torch cars, threaten violence and harass families, UCLA faculty, staff and students involved in the Pro-Test movement are demonstrating not only their courage but also their commitment to public service," he said in a statement.

Jentsch (pronounced "Yench") grew up in Texas, earned a bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate from Yale before arriving at UCLA in 2001. His research, supported by branches of the National Institutes of Health and subject to federal inspections and standards, concentrates on two areas: possible genetic and brain function links to schizophrenia and the effects of various drugs on the area of the brain that influences the will to abstain. The goal is to improve treatments and the chances of early diagnoses, he said.

At a North Carolina facility shared with Wake Forest University, Jentsch works with a colony of more than 450 vervet monkeys in what he described as noncoercive and painless memory tests, DNA samples and scans. He said 10 or fewer of the animals are put to death by injection each year, so that researchers can conduct postmortem exams.

At a UCLA lab, he administers methamphetamine to about two dozen monkeys and then withdraws them from it; about half a dozen are killed each year for postmortems. He contended that the animals suffer no pain from the work.

"The pain in addiction is when you lose your relationships, lose your children, lose your job, when your health goes down. Animals don't suffer those things," he said. "They suffer none of the psychosocial pain that is what addiction is all about."

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Timeline of violence

In the last three years, anonymous animal rights activists have claimed responsibility for violent incidents aimed at stopping University of California scientists from using animals in their research. Those incidents included:

June 2006: An explosive device was lighted but failed to ignite outside a Bel-Air home. Apparently planted at the wrong house, it was intended to target a UCLA psychiatry professor.

June 2007: An incendiary device was lighted but did not ignite beside a car parked at the Westside home of a UCLA eye doctor and researcher.

October 2007: Vandals broke a window and used a garden hose to flood the house of a UCLA professor who researches nicotine addiction. More than $20,000 in damage resulted.

February 2008: An incendiary device damaged the front porch of the same Westside residence flooded just four months before.

June 2008: A UCLA vanpool vehicle was badly damaged in a fire in an Irvine parking lot.

August 2008: Firebombs at separate locations struck a home and a car of two UC Santa Cruz scientists. The car was destroyed and the house was filled with smoke before the fire was put out. One of the scientists, his wife and two young children fled the home through a second-story window.

November 2008: One vehicle was destroyed and two others damaged in arson attacks in front of a Palms-area house. An animal rights group claimed to have attacked the home of a UCLA researcher, but police said the wrong house was targeted.

March 2009: A car was set ablaze next to the Westside home of UCLA neuroscientist J. David Jentsch.

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Source: Times reporting

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