Monkey Madness at UCLA

LA Weekly/August 8, 2007
By Patrick Range McDonald

The home of Dr. Arthur Rosenbaum isn't hard to find. He lives a few blocks south of Sunset Boulevard, near the UCLA campus, in a white two-story house with a front yard jammed with aspen trees. There is a short driveway on the side of the home, and during the evening, a bright, white light illuminates the carport. If someone wants to sabotage the doctor's car under the cover of night, a flashlight isn't needed.

On Sunday, June 24, just that kind of person struck. Rosenbaum, a highly regarded pediatric ophthalmologist who had been regularly harassed by animal-rights activists for his research work with cats and rhesus monkeys at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA, noticed a device underneath his luxury sedan. The bomb squad was dispatched to the scene and hauled away a makeshift — but deadly — explosive. A faulty fuse was the only reason it didn't go off.

Three days later, the so-called Animal Liberation Brigade sent a typo-riddled "communiqué" to the North American Animal Liberation Press Office in Los Angeles. It was posted on the NAALPO Web site:

"130am on the twenty forth of june: 1 gallon of fuel was placed and set a light under the right front corner of Arthur Rosenbaums large white shiney BMW.

"He and his wife ..., living at ... in la, are the target of rebellion for the vile and evil things he does to primates at UCLA. We have seen by our own eyes the torture on fully concious primates in his lab. We have heard their whimpers and screeches of pain. Seeing this drove one of us to rush out and vomit. We have seen hell and its in Rosenbaums lab.

"Rosenbaum, you need to watch your back because next time you are in the operating room or walking to your office you just might be facing injections into your eyes like the primates, you sick twisted fuck.

"Demonstrators need to realize that just demonstrating won't stop this kind of evil. Look up Arthur Rosenbaum to find out about his experiment from two thousand four threw two thousand seven. 'animal liberation brigade'"

Rosenbaum wouldn't comment. In an e-mail, he wrote, "I have been asked by law enforcement to not discuss any events surrounding the incident at this time. I look forward to doing so in the future." According to a Bel-Air Patrol guard, though, the doctor's neighbors are "jumpy."

For several years now, Rosenbaum and other faculty members at UCLA Medical Center have been targeted by animal-rights activists outraged by their experiments on primates. The researchers have endured crank phone calls, menacing e-mails and intimidating threats screamed over bullhorns in the middle of the night in front of their homes.

But with the attempted bombing of Rosenbaum, and the attempted Molotov cocktail bombing last year of UCLA researcher Lynn Fairbanks in Bel-Air, activists are no longer content with talking a mean game — they now want blood.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, which closely watches extremist groups of all kinds throughout the world, Los Angeles has become the capital of a more aggressive brand of animal-rights extremism in the United States — with UCLA as ground zero. "Los Angeles, for now, is the epicenter of this movement," says Oren Segal, co-director of ADL's Center on Extremism in New York City. "We've seen a lot of humans targeted overseas, and now it's happening here."

In the past, Segal notes, ragtag groups in the U.S. calling themselves such names as the Animal Liberation Front and the mostly fabled Earth Liberation Front freed animals from university research labs and firebombed empty buildings. The Animal Liberation Front, in fact, claimed to only target inanimate objects for its violent actions. But now, underground groups — perhaps just one or two enraged people, or perhaps organized networks — have no problem making bombs for killing or maiming their human marks. One of those is the Animal Liberation Front, which took responsibility for last year's attempted Fairbanks bombing. "They have been very violent over the years," says Segal, "so going after humans has been inevitable."

Segal surmises that these groups are made up of "lone wolves" who are seeking publicity for the larger animal-rights movement. Segal says the names are interchangeable, so whether it's people claiming to be ALF, ELF or the Animal Liberation Brigade while taking responsibility for a bombing, it doesn't matter. "They're going to rename themselves depending on what actions they're doing," he says. "Everything is interconnected and jumbled."

The prominent mouthpiece for this new extremism, according to Segal, just happens to live in Los Angeles. His name is Jerry Vlasak, a 49-year-old trauma surgeon and resident of Agoura Hills in the West Valley.

On an 85-degree day, Vlasak wears all black — black long-sleeve dress shirt, black jeans, black Crocs and black socks. He pulls into Astro Family Restaurant in Silver Lake in a black 318i BMW. Vlasak, a tall and lanky man with short salt-and-pepper hair and a faded goatee, settles into a booth and begins speaking excitedly, and somewhat loudly, about his obsession.

"I think the animal-rights movement has been way too slow in taking radical actions," he says. "And they've been way too nice."

Born and raised in Texas, Vlasak came into the movement in 1993, after his wife, former child actress Pamelyn Ferdin, who guest starred in such TV shows as Space Academy, Green Acres and The Brady Bunch, took up animal-rights issues.

Vlasak appreciated her enthusiasm and got involved. In 2004, with a handful of other activists in New York and Texas, he started the North American Animal Liberation Press Office. The Los Angeles branch office is near Canoga Avenue and Victory Boulevard in less-than-radical Woodland Hills. Its purpose: to be a liaison with the public, and to publicize the radical animal-rights underground's activities.

Besides posting communiqués and press releases on the NAALPO Web site, Vlasak understands that his medical background gives the animal-rights movement a certain amount of cachet. Journalists come to him for quotes, and he gives them. In a 2004 interview with the London Observer, he said, "I don't think you'd have to kill too many [researchers]. I think for five lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million nonhuman lives." Those remarks caused him to be banished from England, but in Southern California, he practices surgery at Riverside Community and Parkview Community hospitals in Riverside County, as well as Community Hospital and San Antonio Community Hospital in San Bernardino.

Despite his brief appearance on national television last year, California media have focused surprisingly few stories on Vlasak, and he has gained a foothold here, becoming an important voice — and face — for the increasingly violent movement. He works closely with the UCLA Primate Freedom Project, which gathers medical research documents involving animal testing through the Freedom of Information Act. The organization was founded in 2001 by UCLA honors student Erica Sutherland, who has since dropped out of the animal-rights scene. At the time, though, Sutherland shared the reports with other activists, who collected and posted the names of researchers at UCLA on various Web sites.

With Vlasak advocating violence and Sutherland supplying the underground information, UCLA Medical Center faculty members were suddenly in the cross hairs. But it wasn't until the Molotov cocktail incident on June 30, 2006, that things truly got vicious. A communiqué 11 days later from anonymous members claiming to belong to ALF declared:

"On the night of June 30, we paid a visit to Lynn Fairbanks home at... in Belaire. Since she is rumored to have a cocktail every evening after a hard days work of breeding monkeys for painful addiction experiments at UCLA we thought we would give her a cocktail of our own a moletov cocktail. We left it on her doorstep but didn't hang around to see if it went off."

The Molotov cocktail never exploded — and it was left on the wrong doorstep. An elderly woman, not Fairbanks, who lived a few blocks away, found the defective firebomb.

But the act of domestic terrorism brought in the FBI, who in partnership with UCLA offered a $60,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the would-be bombers. The attempted bombing of Rosenbaum's car generated an even bigger reward offer — $110,000.

Despite the huge reward offers, spokeswoman Laura Eimiller says, "It certainly presents an obstacle when you have a group taking responsibility anonymously."

One thing is for sure — the situation at UCLA, where doctors care for patients with severe eye disorders at the globally respected Jules Stein center, is getting downright creepy. "There has been an escalation of inflamed rhetoric over the years, and now there's an escalation of violence," says Eimiller. "We're concerned that it's only a matter of time someone will get hurt or killed."

UCLA — and major facilities like it — clearly have no intention of ending animal experimentation. Acting Chancellor Norman Abrams declared in a June 28 statement, "UCLA remains steadfast in its commitment to the lawful use of laboratory animals in research for the benefit of society." Abrams also notes that the university abides by strict federal laws and is subject to federal inspection.

Research at the Jules Stein Eye Institute has led to advances in gene therapies to treat inherited, blindness-causing diseases, and UCLA is credited with a breakthrough for curing visual loss in patients with the eye disease known as Stargardt's. Rosenbaum and its other leading physicians who do key work on such diseases have plenty of supporters.

But some of the experiments have been gruesome. Most notably, Rosenbaum's have involved shooting Botox into the eyes of fully conscious rhesus monkeys. In another case, when a vervet monkey was strapped in a metal cage, the terrified animal reacted by biting its tongue, banging its head, and chipping its teeth. The monkey wounded itself so badly that it had to be euthanized. On the less tragic end, mice were given shots of Accutane, a drug used to treat acne, which helped advance gene therapies for blind Stargardt's patients.

Still, within the animal-rights underground, it is an all-or-nothing situation. UCLA has reacted by beefing up security on and off campus, even hiring private firms to watch over the homes of faculty members, according to UCLA Police Department spokeswoman Nancy Greenstein. At Dr. Arthur Rosenbaum's home, armed security now stand guard 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In addition, Abrams recently changed UCLA policy regarding Freedom of Information Act requests. The university will no longer make public its medical research documents, according to UCLA vice chancellor for research Roberto Peccei.

Peccei revealed this bold, possibly unconstitutional decision after the L.A. Weekly asked about a "redacted report" that Vlasak had released to the media. The document, blacked out in several areas, including one section that detailed the pain levels animals endured, was a renewal application for Rosenbaum's research into eye muscle control. Rosenbaum is trying to cure severely crossed eyes in humans — a debilitating condition that can also lead to blindness.

Vlasak insists the experiments with rhesus monkeys and cats are unnecessary — a claim the vice chancellor meets with open disgust. "They're always using these things in a way to hype it up!" Peccei says. "Let them take us to court for not providing the documents."

Via e-mail, Vlasak retorts, "They obviously feel like they have to hide not only the details of what's going on in their research labs, but now they are going to try to hide from the public, at a public institution no less. If they were not ashamed of what they are doing, they should be willing to openly display what is going on there."

Peccei, who has heard midnight taunts outside his own home, says researchers continue their work undaunted, although an associate neurology professor, Dario Ringach, quit after last year's botched bombing and plaintively wrote to animal-rights groups: "You win... please don't bother my family anymore."

Aside from the quickly vanishing Ringach, the vice chancellor says, "We're bearing up pretty well," and Peccei claims that recruiting talented researchers has not been a problem.

Well beyond L.A., medical researchers, disease victims' groups, animal-rights activists, law-enforcement agencies and extremists are no doubt watching events unfold in Westwood. A possibly messy and tragic showdown is brewing.

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