An Associated Press story in the morning paper, today, described a move by animal activists to make attacks on researchers who work with animals increasingly personal. Teams that used to hold placards outside conferences and labs now picket scientists’ homes. Some “animal rights” groups use bullhorns to send neighbors the message that “Your neighbor kills animals,” the story said.

NOT YET OBSOLETE Some animal-rights activists are taking a page out of the anti-abortionists’ playbook and now bully animal researchers at home. iStockphoto

These reports rile me up. On lots of levels. First, so-called animal-rights groups seek to compel change through brutish intimidation. They are, in a word, bullies. The goal here is not to change the minds of scientists about the value of their labors but to intimidate their families and annoy — if not enrage — their neighbors. (I don’t like neighbors’ dogs barking all day or night; bullhorn-bleating activists are just a human corollary.)

If these activists have a beef with scientists, they ought to compel with data or the law. If those don’t work, maybe the argument they’ve been trumpeting isn’t all that compelling after all.

Actually, I’d like to see someone probe the behaviors of these alleged animal guardians to see how well they practice what they preach. For instance, I strongly suspect that when the animal crusaders (and especially their loved ones) become ill or injured, they don’t eschew life-saving medicines and procedures that were first pioneered through animal research. And if they don’t, they’re hypocrites to picket, harass — and occasionally even destroy the research of — toxicologists and biomedical scientists.

The animal researchers I know truly love animals. Many trained as veterinarians. Their goal, indeed their passion, is the humane treatment of animals, often in service of understanding — and ultimately eliminating — threats to the health and well being of wildlife.

Another suspicion: Animal rights crusaders don’t have an abiding respect for all fauna. Indeed, I’d like to see some organization — perhaps a major biomedical research group — finance detectives to investigate how deeply animal-protection attitudes run in all members of the movement.

I suspect we’d find that if their homes were under siege by marauding termites or carpenter bees, they wouldn’t let the insects destroy those structures. If activists moved into a roach-infested apartment, they probably would not willingly let these pests share their food, beds, and their infants’ eyebrows (because yes, roaches will eat nails and brows). If their kindergartners were sent home with lice, what do you want to bet they’d just accept the infestation and resort to home schooling these kids?

This morning’s news story quoted Jerry Vlasak of the Animal Liberation Front as saying that although he would not advocate an animal-scientist’s murder, “if you had to hurt somebody or intimidate them or kill them, it would be morally justifiable.” I can’t begin to fathom what moral compass would lead him to that assessment. Such a comment also goes a long way toward undercutting the basic premise of protecting animals (of which Homo sapiens is but one).

I support every American’s first amendment right to free speech. But bullying and harassment is not protected by law in many jurisdictions. Moreover, if we’re talking morality here, which is more moral: to threaten the safety and life of a researcher engaged in studies that may improve the health, well-being, and longevity of millions of people or to threaten the lives of several dozen animals that were bred for the express purpose of being humanely sacrificed for highly regulated and well-supervised health studies?

Where good substitutes to animals in toxicology exist, I support their use. But initially validating even those may require the use of some animals for comparison purposes. And in many instances, good substitutes do not exist (for technical reasons). In those instances, I see no reason to substitute toddlers, grandpa, or college co-eds as our initial hypothesis-testing guinea pigs.

Instead of targeting scientists and harassing their families, I’d like to see animal activists focus their attention on those who not only encourage animal research but also provide most of its funding: Uncle Sam and Big Pharma. If the charge is that animal research is amoral, activists should engage constructively and deliberatively with those responsible for balancing the risks and benefits of research.

But we should never give activists even tacit license to bully researchers, because in short order it may escalate to terrorism.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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