When UCLA neuroscientist J. David Jentsch was a grad student, he never expected his life as an academic would require around-the-clock armed guards, or a closed-circuit TV inside his bedroom so he could keep constant watch over his home.
But the high-powered security proved necessary again this month when the researcher, who experiments on monkeys, opened a letter left in his mailbox to discover razor blades and a death threat.
“We follow you on campus,” Jentsch recalled the note reading. “One day, when you’re walking by, we’ll come up behind you, and cut your throat.”
Activists claimed the razors were tainted with AIDS, though it hasn’t been confirmed by officials. University officials have said the latest threat, confirmed by UCLA on Tuesday, is under investigation by the FBI and UCLA police.
But the 38-year-old professor has been through this before. Last year, he woke up to an orange flash and a car alarm. He ran outside to find his car had been blown up.
Twice a month, animal rights activists in ski masks gather outside his home, chanting “murder.” On Halloween, neighborhood trick-or-treaters were handed flyers with images of bloodied animal subjects.
“If you go to the house down the street, there’s a monster who lives there,” children were told.
The tactics, Jentsch said in an interview inside his office, are part of an intensifying effort by extremists to halt animal research at the university. Molotov-cocktail-like devices have been left near researchers’ homes and under their cars, and in one case, a professor’s window was smashed and a garden hose inserted to flood her home.
Some of Jentsch’s colleagues have opted to alter their research, or move, but the neuroscientist says the latest incident has motivated him to press on.
“They’re absolutely determined. This is not a joke to them,” he said. “But this is the work I feel morally obligated to do.”
Since his car was torched, Jentsch has become the face of animal research at UCLA, founding an organization to voice support for humane animal research and organizing a public rally for the cause.
His tenacity comes with drawbacks. He has to vary his routes to work and switch his parking spots. When he has dinner parties, he has to remind his guests that they’ll be checked in at the gate by security guards with guns. After moving into his new home, he made the rounds to his new neighbors, informing them of his work and warning of the protests that would inevitably follow him to the neighborhood.
He keeps the door outside his office pod locked. On a recent morning, the sound of footsteps in the hall brought Jentsch to his feet. “Who’s there?” he shouted as he turned the corner, his demeanor softening once he discovered it was one of his students waiting outside.
Jentsch uses vervet monkeys in his research on methamphetamine addiction and tobacco dependence in teens, along with cognitive disabilities affecting schizophrenia patients. University officials say their animal research is subject to strict oversight, but the work has come under fire from animal rights activists who say it amounts to abuse.
Some of Jentsch’s work has included administering methamphetamine to monkeys and then withdrawing the drug, a project that includes killing about half a dozen of the primates each year for postmortems.
A recent animal activist communique on the razor blade incident called Jentsch a Frankenstein.
“How would Jentsch like the same thing he does to primates to be done to him? That would be justice,” the letter said.
Lately, the researcher said, activists have been referring to him as David “Tiller” Jentsch, a reference to abortion doctor George Tiller, who was shot and killed last year in Kansas by a pro-life activist.
“They’re hoping I would be the first Tiller of the animal rights community,” he said. “My worry is some unstable person will hear these messages enough times and they’ll take it as a signal.”
But Jentsch is hopeful with every incident that the individuals responsible might slip and leave behind DNA or fingerprints.
In a news release issued earlier this week, the Animal Liberation Front said it had obtained statements from animal activists calling themselves the Justice Department of UCLA, claiming responsibility for sending the razor blades.
“They’re used to scaring people and getting their way,” Jentsch said. “It’s just not going to happen in this case.”