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WARNING: Animal Extremists are Dangerous to Your Health


P. Michael Conn and James V. Parker

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.3, May / June 2008

Animal extremists are foot soldiers in a quiet war—one that could restrict the ability of researchers to develop drugs urgently needed for the treatment of new and emerging diseases.

For years we have laughed at the antics of people in some of the more extreme segments of the animal rights movement—groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). They put up billboards encouraging children to drink beer instead of milk and vilify fast food chains for cooking veggie burgers on the same grill as meat. They even wrote to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh urging him to stop the killing at his dinner plate and to request a vegetarian dinner for his last meal. All this sure gets the media’s attention and sometimes even a chuckle from the public. Well, maybe its time to stop laughing.

We may choose to ignore the poor taste of the animal rights movement in equating the Holocaust of World War II with the raising of broiler chickens or the “enslavement” of circus animals with the slavery of African-Americans in the United States. But consider this curious candor from one animal rights leader, “The life of an ant and that of my child should be granted equal consideration” (Fox 1992). What does that mean?

Can we ignore this statement from PETA co-founder Alex Pacheco: “Arson, property destruction, burglary, and threat are ‘acceptable crimes’ when used for the animal cause” ( 2008a)?

FBI special agent David Szady, referring to Earth Liberation Front, one extremist group of the animal rights movement, said, “Make no mistake about it, by any sense or definition [this] is a domestic terrorism group” (Hemphill 2003). Animal rightists are domestic terrorists?

In the short term and for most of us, there is no reason for the jitters. We are not the scientists who use animal models to unlock secrets of physiology that may improve our health. So far, they have been the primary targets of animal extremists’ wrath—people like the two Oregon researchers whose homes and cars were vandalized last December (Figures 1 and 2). There is no indication that the extremists will, any time soon, go after you and me for eating a hamburger, keeping a pet, taking meds, or using a pacemaker.

The inconvenient truth is that in the long term, and for all of us, there is cause for concern. The agenda of extreme animal rightists is crystal clear: end the use of all animals as food, clothing, pets, and subjects of medical research. Yet we live longer and healthier lives due to vaccinations, better drugs, and improved information about nutrition and disease prevention—longer lives are the result of animal research.

Noting the impact of these extremists on the nation’s health agenda, famed heart surgeon and 2007 congressional gold medal winner Michael DeBakey said, “It is the American public who will decide whether we must tell hundreds of thousands of victims of heart attacks, cancer, AIDS, and other dread diseases that the rights of animals supersede a patient’s right to relief from suffering and premature death.”

Clarifying definitions will provide a good basis for discussion.

The term animal welfare refers to the idea that humans have a responsibility to care for animals and look out for their well-being. Because seeking animal welfare is in line with what is noblest in human nature, it is sometimes called “acting humanely.” Most reasonable people agree with this. Researchers reflect these values in subscribing to high-quality care for animals, something codified into law as the Animal Welfare Act. Federal regulations are in place to minimize pain and suffering in research. At the authors’ place of employment, the Oregon National Primate Research Center, animals live longer lives than their counterparts in the wild, owing to high-quality food and excellent veterinary care. One sad truth is that our animals get better medical care and nutrition than do many children in the U.S.

Animal rights, sometimes used as shorthand for any concern for animals, really means the belief that animals, like humans, possess some inalienable rights. It is our view that while animals do not have such rights—rights and responsibilities are correlative, and animals are unable to take responsibility for their actions—it is our duty as humans and ethical researchers to care for them humanely, just as we care for our pets.

Animal extremists portray themselves as engaged in a “David against Goliath” struggle on behalf of animals, but are they the true animal welfarists? Hardly! In 2006 alone, PETA killed 2,981 dogs, cats, puppies, kittens, and other animals—an astonishing 97 percent of the animals left in their care, according to the group’s own records supplied to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (2006). For comparison, the Virginia Society for the Protection of Animals (which operates in Norfolk, Virginia, as does PETA) euthanized less than 2.5 percent of the 1,404 animals placed with them in 2006. While PETA collects tens of millions in donations by claiming to advocate for the welfare of animals, the group has actually killed 17,400 pets since 1998 (Center for Consumer Freedom 2008).

PETA’s most recently available tax filing (according to lists nearly $30 million in income from contributions, gifts, and grants offered by individuals who may believe that it is actually an animal welfare organization that helps strays.

Many of its donors are also unaware that PETA has provided cash to individuals who publicly engaged in a terrorist agenda. A few examples were provided by Lewiston Morning Tribune (Idaho) writer Michael Costello. “PETA donated $45,200 to . . . ALF [Animal Liberation Front] terrorist Rodney Coronado’s legal defense. (Coronado was convicted in connection with an arson attack at Michigan State University that caused $125,000 worth of damage and destroyed thirty-two years of research data. On December 14, 2007, in a Federal Court in San Diego, he entered a guilty plea to one count of distribution of information related to the assembly of explosives and other charges.) They also . . . ‘loaned’ Coronado’s father $25,000 dollars [sic], which to our knowledge, has not been repaid. In 1999, PETA gave $2,000 to David Wilson, a national ‘ALF spokesperson.’ . . . And sure enough, PETA has contributed to the ALF’s sister organization; according to its own IRS filing, in 2000 PETA openly donated $1,500 to the Earth Liberation Front. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) calls ELF ‘the largest and most active U.S.-based terrorist group’” (Costello 2003).

PETA probably doesn’t want its donors to know that. Instead, it directs outrage toward “vivisectors” falsely accused of cruelty to animals to incense donors into reaching more deeply into their pockets.

“We are complete press sluts,” the PETA leadership has claimed ( 2008b). On that single issue, we agree with PETA.

Garage door vandalized at the home of an Oregon scientist and colleague of the authors.

Garage door vandalized at the home of an Oregon scientist and colleague of the authors.

Although PETA is careful not to openly embrace the assaults, vandalism, and threats perpetrated by some groups, it does not oppose such violence either. Speaking of one animal extremist group whose leaders have been convicted of animal terrorism, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said, “More power to SHAC [Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty] if they can get someone’s attention” ( 2008b).

The Animal Liberation Front can speak for itself, however. Says one of its leaders, Tim Daley, “In a war you have to take up arms and people will get killed, and I can support that kind of action by gasoline bombing and bombs under cars, and probably at a later stage, the shooting of vivisectors on their doorsteps. It’s a war, and there’s no other way you can stop vivisectors” (Lovitz 2007). Jerry Vlasak, head of the ALF Press Office, is equally candid, “I don’t think you’d have to kill—assassinate—too many [doctors involved with animal testing]. I think for 5 lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million non-human lives” (McDonald 2007).

To “sell” their story, animal extremists rely on the lack of public awareness of tight federal regulation on animal research—random inspections of facilities by the United States Department of Agriculture for compliance to the rigorous standards of the Animal Welfare Act.

Animal extremists wrongfully claim that data obtained from animal research cannot be extrapolated to drug development for humans. A recent survey of 150 drug compounds from twelve international pharmaceutical companies found that animal testing had significant predictive power to detect most—not all, admittedly—of 221 human toxic events caused by those drugs (Olson et al. 2000).

Animals are important not just in testing for efficacy and safety of drugs but also to the basic research that leads to medical advances. Ironically, animal extremists were decrying the uselessness of our Center’s basic investigations in primate stem cell biology on the very day in November 2007 that one of our scientists announced the first cloning of stem cells from non-embryonic primate tissue, subsequently hailed by Time magazine as the top discovery of 2007.

Animal extremists often show willful naïveté in considering human health needs. Smallpox, malaria, and polio have been nearly eradicated from much of the world—you no longer see wards of people confined to “iron lungs.” Animal research is inextricably tied to improved human health. The first recognition of diabetes as a disease and the explanation of its cause, as well as its first treatment and early management, came directly from animal research conducted in universities. Improvements in treatments for this disease continue to come from these same sources. While these accomplishments are tributes to animal research, extremists fail to recognize that antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, AIDS, diabetes, and heart disease still need the attention of researchers, who in turn need ethical animal research to advance their studies.

What are we to do when those very researchers are targeted for harassment and violence?

Washington D.C., police officers arrest rabbit-costumed PETA demonstrators Debbie Mitchell (left) and Melynda DuVal (right) during a protest in front of the Department of Transportation. AFP PHOTO/ Mario TAMA [Photo via Newscom]

Washington D.C., police officers arrest rabbit-costumed PETA demonstrators Debbie Mitchell (left) and Melynda DuVal (right) during a protest in front of the Department of Transportation. AFP PHOTO/ Mario TAMA [Photo via Newscom]

In 2006, members of ALF declared that they left a Molotov Cocktail outside the Bel Air home of Dr. Lynn Fairbanks, the Director of the Center for Primate Neuroethology at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. Actually, the explosive device was placed on the porch of the faculty member’s seventy-year-old neighbor. Fortunately, the timing device failed (Editors 2006).

About one year later, a group calling themselves the Animal Liberation Brigade claimed responsibility for placing a lighted incendiary device next to a car parked at the home of Dr. Arthur Rosenbaum, who is chief of Pediatric Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. Authorities described the event as “domestic terrorism.” The delivery address was correct this time, but fortunately for Dr. Rosenbaum and his neighbors, the device did not ignite due to ineptness on the part of the “activists” (McDonald 2007). Police noted that the device had the potential to create great harm.

Another talented researcher, Dr. Dario Ringach, ultimately gave in to animal extremists, promising to stop his research on monkeys in exchange for cessation of harassment of his family, including his young children. “You win,” he e-mailed them (Epstein 2006).

It is worth mentioning that Ringach’s, Rosenbaum’s, and Fairbank’s research all were humanely conducted and met federal standards.

As you can see, we are not talking about peaceful protests here. As the editors of Nature Neuroscience (Editors 2006) put it, “Over several years, the researchers have been subjected to a campaign of harassment that included demonstrations at their homes and pamphlets distributed to their neighbors, as well as threatening phone calls and emails. Elsewhere, targets of similar protests have had abuse shouted through bullhorns or painted on their homes or cars, doorbells rung repeatedly, and windows smashed or doors broken down while family members were in the house. Animal-rights Web sites post the names of scientists’ spouses and children, along with their ages and schools.”

According to the Foundation for Biomedical Research (2006), a handful of illegal acts by animal extremist groups in 1994 had risen to a hundred such attacks ten years later. Society for Neuroscience members reported more attacks in the first six months of 2007 than in the five-year period from 1999 to 2003, prompting that organization to release, just this past February, the document “Best Practices for Protecting Researchers and Research: Recommendations for Universities and Institutions” (2008, see sidebar, page 27).

Even though these and similar events send a chilling message to researchers and young people considering the field of biomedical research, they are poorly reported in the general media. The public doesn’t hear about the impact this has on students viewing research as a potential career—or those already active in the field. Nor does it hear how the loss of talented researchers threatens creation of the new knowledge needed to devise cures.

Former University of Iowa President (now of Cornell University) David Skorton worries that researchers and students are being scared off by attacks from animal rights extremists. ALF, which took credit for break-ins and destruction at the University of Iowa, distributed the home addresses of researchers who conduct animal research to animal activists. “Publicizing this personal information was blatant intimidation,” Skorton pointed out, adding that because of safety worries, “numerous researchers are even concerned about allowing their children to play in their own yards.” He acknowledged that the cost of such intimidation is difficult to nail down, but he believed it “could be measured by many, many lives” that might not be saved by medical advances (Lederman 2005).

Spray-painted automobile at the home of an Oregon scientist and colleaugue of the authors. The white material is paint stripper.

Spray-painted automobile at the home of an Oregon scientist and colleaugue of the authors. The white material is paint stripper.

His words echoed those of Richard Bianco, vice president for research at the University of Minnesota, where an attack by vandals in 1999 caused more than $2 million in damage. “The financial aspect is the least of our problems. . . . The hardest thing is people see this and don’t want to go into science,” he said. “Why would they go into science when they can have their work threatened like that?” (Agri News 2005).

Senator Orrin Hatch understood. “When research laboratories and university researchers are targeted and attacked, the ones who lose most are those who are living with a disease or who are watching a loved one struggling with a devastating illness” (Davidson 2004).

Because it seeks to stop ethical medical research, animal extremism is bad for our health. There are several steps the public can take to help reduce this threat to public health and good science.

We should be very careful in our giving to ensure that our contributions don’t wind up aiding those who use the weapons of intimidation and violence. At the same time, we want to support organizations with proven records of caring for animals or of providing humane education that enhances the care received by laboratory animals.

If we have scientists who are neighbors, we can offer to organize a neighborhood watch and volunteer to speak to the media about how we have benefited from animal research if their homes are vandalized.

While mentioning the importance of speaking out, we can contact the local organization or university supporting research (a list, by state, is available at and offer to testify about what animal research has meant to someone in our family. When our kids come home from school with animal rights literature that denigrates animal research, we can contact their teachers to ask that they invite a researcher or veterinarian from a local university or research center to visit the class or even take the students on a tour of their facility.

It is because we thought it was time to sound the alarm that we wrote The Animal Research War1 describing what we think the public needs to know about this quiet war—“quiet,” because it is seldom reported in the news. We want to tell people about the battle zone that we, as animal researchers, live in every day. We also want to communicate the benefits of animal research, past and potential, as well as the compassion with which researchers care for laboratory animals. If this war is lost, it is all who struggle with disease—that means all of us, sooner or later—who will bear the burden.

Benefits of Animal Research

Animal research saves human lives and animals—both benefit from life-saving vaccines and antibiotics for a variety of diseases. And those are just two medical treatments among hundreds developed from animal research. From improved surgical techniques to advances in organ transplant, animal research has vastly improved and prolonged life. Seven of the last ten Nobel Prizes awarded in medicine relied on animal research.

As early as the twentieth century, animal research allowed scientists to understand the malaria life cycle, the pathogenesis of tuberculosis, and the development of an antiserum for diphtheria. Today, gene therapy for cancer and an improved tuberculosis vaccine (“the first vaccine in 100 years that is more potent than the current one”) are the result of ongoing research using animals. Multiple advances in pain therapy would not have been possible without it.

The reduction of several prenatal and newborn complications, as well as hypertension reduction during pregnancy, is the result of animal research using sheep.

A pediatric heart valve “that can be loaded into a catheter, inserted into a vein in the groin area, guided into place and deployed at a precise location within the heart” is being developed by UCLA researchers as an alternative to risky, invasive open-heart surgery. Pigs are being used to test the device because their circulatory system closely resembles that of humans.

And thanks to advances in in vitro fertilization and embryo transplant techniques, many endangered species have a fighting chance.

New Recommendations for Protecting Researchers Issued

The Society for Neuroscience released a document on February 7, 2008, to help protect academic researchers who “face intimidation, harassment, and physical attack by fringe anti-animal research extremists.” The “Best Practices for Protecting Researchers and Research” report calls on research institutions “to ensure the ability of researchers to conduct their research in a safe environment.”

It also calls on universities and research institutions to:

The recommendations suggest a series of processes in the areas of leadership and administration (responsibility for protecting against attack “lies at the highest level of the executive and academic administration”); security (institutions must “develop and plan with local law enforcement”); and public affairs and communication.

“When protests extend beyond constitutionally protected activities and become personally violent or intimidating, the leadership and administration are obligated to demonstrate that protection of researchers is a core responsibility and directly affects the livelihood of both the institution and the global research enterprise.”


  1. The authors have written The Animal Research War (Macmillan/Palgrave, 2008), a personal account of what it is like to be terrorized, an analysis of the effect of animal extremists on the world’s scientists, and the way in which the public and legal system is changing its views on animals. The book traces the evolution of the animal rights movement, profiles its leadership, and reveals the remarkable value of the research enterprise.


P. Michael Conn and James V. Parker

P. Michael Conn is the associate director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, an institute of Oregon Health and Science University, where he is also professor of physiology and pharmacology and cell and developmental biology.

James V. Parker, now retired, is the former public information officer of the Oregon National Primate Research Center. He writes on the nature of basic biomedical research to help the public appreciate its humane use of animals. They are authors of the new book The Animal Research War.