It was around 3 a.m. when intruders cut six large holes in the chain-link fence surrounding Huntingdon Life Sciences, a British-based biomedical testing laboratory near Princeton, N.J. Bypassing alarms and avoiding the security patrol, they broke into one of the buildings, cut a hole in a ceiling, and dropped into a holding area for beagles awaiting drug experiments. They hoisted 14 of the nervous, 40-pound dogs up through the roof and disappeared into the night.
The beagle heist one year ago marked the American debut of a determined, sometimes violent two-year international campaign by activists to destroy HLS, the world's second-biggest commercial animal test lab. That goal now appears to be at hand, thanks to an important shift in strategy. The activists have extended their focus beyond HLS facilities to target and scare off the company's employees, customers, suppliers, and financial backers.
Their success could have profound implications not only for other drug test labs but also for pharmaceutical, chemical, and biotech companies that rely on them. "This is a very sophisticated and dangerous campaign, but the U.S. pharmaceutical industry and Congress aren't paying attention," warns Frankie Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, a Washington-based lobby.
Commercial test labs like Huntingdon are a critical link in the healthcare system. They use rats, mice, rabbits, dogs, and primates to conduct government-mandated toxicity tests of new drugs, and chemicals used in new consumer products, before clinical trials are permitted on humans. The 85,000 animals, about 80 percent rodents used annually by HLS in the United States and Britain are eventually killed for study.
Tough tactics. The Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign in Britain was launched in December 1999 after undercover investigators in HLS labs broadcast film of test animals being abused. The offensive marked a sharp escalation from traditional nonviolent protest to intense harassment with the novel strategy of targeting the company's financial foundation. SHAC's Web sites in Britain, and later in the United States, published the names and addresses of employees and detailed measures "used by animal-rights extremists campaigning against HLS and similar companies." These ranged from legal demonstrations to death threats, firebombings, and assaults. The posting concluded: "Now don't get any funny ideas, folks."
SHAC's British Web site exhorted: "HLS workers are animal killers. Go get 'em." Huntingdon's managing director, Brian Cass, was badly beaten outside his home by three masked thugs swinging baseball bats. HLS staffers were confronted by protesters screaming abuse and death threats. Others received packages filled with feces and dead rodents or booby-trapped with razor blades. Property was vandalized, a senior manager was sprayed in the face with a caustic substance, and 11 cars were firebombed - two parked adjacent to homes where children slept. Three SHAC leaders later received 12-month sentences for harassment but denied that their organization was involved in violent acts.
SHAC's prime strategy, besides terrifying employees, was to undermine Huntingdon's corporate underpinnings by targeting investors, banks, and other pillars of financial support. More violence and protests followed. Company directors received abuse and death threats. Demonstrators picketed corporate headquarters and branch offices, waving gruesome placards of dissected monkeys and beagles. Web sites were attacked, business disrupted by bomb threats, ATMs disabled by glue-smeared credit cards, walls defaced by graffiti, and windows smashed.
It quickly became obvious that most boardrooms had no stomach for the vivisection wars. One of the first to abandon HLS was the governing Labor Party pension fund. Phillips & Drew, Huntingdon's biggest British stockholder, dumped 41 million shares for a penny apiece. Barclays, a major U.K. bank, pulled out, saying that it "couldn't guarantee the safety of our people." Stockbroker Charles Schwab quit trading HLS shares in Britain after two protesters, one in a rabbit costume, occupied the roof of its Birmingham offices. All told, a score of blue-chip companies abandoned HLS.
Eventually, Huntingdon could not persuade a single British commercial bank to handle its business, and the Labor government was forced to provide the company basic financial services through the Bank of England, the equivalent of the U.S. Federal Reserve. There were other repercussions: Japanese companies planning to spend some $1.4 billion on 10 new research centers, plus five other pharmaceutical multinationals with major expansions in mind, put their plans on hold last year, citing animal-rights terrorism.
Activists view such violence through a prism tempered by their own outrage. Through a shrewd and legal blend of lobbying, demonstrations, and celebrity endorsements, they have improved creature care in the meat and entertainment industries, the pet trade, the fur business, and many others. But even mainstream groups scarcely disguise their nod-and-wink approval of extremists who vandalize laboratories, destroy research, and "liberate" captive animals. "Our nonviolent tactics are not as effective," says Ingrid Newkirk, cofounder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "We ask nicely for years and get nothing. Someone makes a threat, and it works." Adds Kevin Jonas, the leader of SHAC-USA: "We don't condone or condemn violence, but we have no control over illegal elements."
By January 2001, as Huntingdon teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, the battle shifted to America, and the harassment continued. That month, the company was rescued by a $33 million loan from Stephens Group, a privately held, $5 billion Arkansas-based investment firm and the lab's largest shareholder, with a 16 percent stake. SHAC-USA vowed to go after the new American financiers, but the firm's president and CEO, Warren Stephens, said he was not intimidated. "I much prefer not to have this fight, but we'll come prepared," he told U.S. News last fall as protesters began their offensive.
Too much pressure. The activists besieged his Little Rock home and headquarters, broke windows and tossed red paint on his New York townhouse, and depicted him on a blood-spattered Web site as a puppy killer and animal torturer. They demonstrated at company offices nationwide, staged E-mail, fax, and phone blitzes, threatened employees, picketed their homes, and harassed company clients. Stephens took out newspaper ads saying the firm would not be coerced and, with HLS, filed a lawsuit against SHAC-USA and others seeking an injunction against "acts and threats of force, violence, and intimidation." With its American white knight leading the charge, the lab seemed poised for recovery.
Last October, HLS restructured as a U.S.-based company to help hide the identity of shareholders and prepared to quit the London stock exchange and list its shares on the NASDAQ board. But in February, Stephens suddenly capitulated. He dumped his company's stake in HLS at a reported $6 million loss and sold the $33 million loan to a secret foreign buyer, insisting the protests did not influence the decision. Shares in HLS, a company once valued at more than $500 million, are now all but worthless. Stephens admits underestimating the protesters. "We were aware of the activists," he said last fall, "but I don't think we understood exactly what lengths they would go to." Says SHAC-USA's Jonas: "If we can push this domino down, there is no domino we can't push down."
Jonas is now readying his endgame strategy: Identify Huntingdon's new loan holder and target two insurance companies, Marsh and Aetna, that underwrite corporate coverage and employee healthcare for HLS. Scare them off, he believes, and Huntingdon's fate will be as inevitable as that of its test animals.