Next time you are out shopping in your high street and see one of those trestle tables covered in gut-wrenching pictures of suffering animals, look closely at the people seeking your support. They may seem well- intentioned and caring, they may be eloquent in their arguments. You may agree with their aim of closing down an organisation that experiments on animals to develop drugs that will save human lives.
But before you open your wallet, remember that money donated to this cause is often spent on promoting terrorism against people like me, people who have no connection with Huntingdon Life Sciences or any kind of animal experimentation. For the past two months I have been bombarded with obscene phone calls, threatening and abusive mail and rape threats. Pornography, fetish magazines and even a Haitian voodoo curse have come rattling through my letterbox.
I had no clue who could be pursuing such a vicious vendetta. The first three calls came one evening at about ten-minute intervals, and were a jumble of four-letter words. The next morning some ads for porn videos and sex aids came through the post. More calls from different voices and then silent calls followed.
I went to the police, who urged me to think of someone who bore me a grudge. Had I sacked anyone? Did I have a middle-aged male colleague whose handwriting bore any resemblance to the obscenities scrawled on some of the letters? I searched my address book wondering who could possibly hate me so much.
Who had I offended? I dismissed the idea of a crackpot contacting me at random, because my name was always used. Then, after a week of bizarre mail and calls consisting of a string of swear words, a strange message was left on my answering machine. A woman caller with a sinister sing-song voice told me to stop torturing animals.
That call helped the police to identify what was behind the whole nasty business. I sit on a residents' committee which included an employee of the American bank that helped to finance (and which two weeks ago withdrew its support from) Huntingdon Life Sciences, the controversial company that uses animals for drug testing. Apparently that tenuous connection made every committee member a legitimate target for terrorism, and I soon discovered that each of them had been subjected to the same treatment as me. The police have been sympathetic and pass all the information we give them to what is chillingly called the domestic terrorism unit at Scotland Yard.
Once you know where the abuse is coming from the shock effect is diminished. Initial fears are replaced by irritation. Letters threatening to teach us a lesson or warning us to watch our backs, and mail with the word SCUM scrawled over the envelopes, go straight to the police. Many are photocopies sent to several people, as was one slip of paper bearing the message: "Whilst in Haiti a voodoo spell was cast upon you. You will soon feel the effects of it. The spell will be lifted when your involvement in HLS ceases. Do not underestimate this warning."
It appeared that animal terrorists had published our personal details because we lived in the same street as the person whose career they were trying to ruin.
"Turn him into a social outcast by targeting the people and companies he has dealings with," trumpeted a newsletter by the Provisional HLS Campaign. Supporters were urged to make abusive calls in the early hours of the morning; to leave fake messages at companies selling anything from stairlifts to incontinence pads, and asking to be called back; to leave our phone numbers in public lavatories and phone boxes advertising prostitution and to send pornographic material through the post.
Some of us were sent letters saying that our spouses were having an affair; others were warned that something might happen to their car. The husbands and wives of all committee members were targeted too. One felt forced to change his telephone number; another was sickened by a stack of paedophile literature sent to his address.
The newsletter made chilling reading. It instructed its supporters how to terrorise by telephone: "It's time to abuse the abusers - phone them up and be as nasty as you can. This is especially good to do in the early hours of the morning or at other unsociable times such as Sunday lunch or at 8am when they are trying to leave for work."
Other tactics recommended are the repeat silent phone call or heavy breathing into the receiver. Another suggestion is that all listed targets can be set against each other. "Ring them up leaving a message asking them to call you back. Leave the number of another abuser, then sit back and enjoy as they all ring each other in a frenzy. This works especially well if you say it is nurse so and so from such and such a hospital calling about their wife/mother/husband/son, and can they please call you back urgently." Presumably the people who write this have not considered the effect such a message could have on a child or a frail-and-elderly pensioner who has never heard of Huntingdon Life Sciences.
One letter sent to a female committee member came from a genuine address and was signed. It detailed how the writer had met and embarked on a six-month affair with the woman's husband. Now, the letter writer claimed, she was pregnant with the man's child and wanted maintenance. In the event, the poor woman whose signature and address had been used on the letter, turned out to be a victim of animal terrorism herself. She was in her seventies and her name had been published on the hitlist because she held shares in a company of which the animal terrorists disapproved.
The newsletter, anonymously but expensively printed and produced, invites its supporters to write to half a dozen terrorists who have been imprisoned for the very crimes it is urging others to commit.
And it adds some helpful tips for those game to have a go at breaking the law, under a section entitled: Don't get caught. "Special police squads and hired investigators are on the prowl trying to hamper all of our efforts . . ." it warns. "Read the precautionary words of advice below and be careful - the animals cannot afford to lose you.
"When writing and mailing letters you want to remain anonymous. Use new stationary (sic), envelopes, pens and write to them with newspaper cuttings of words/letters (using gloves) or if possible use a computer. DO NOT LICK the stamp as it leaves your DNA. Post the letter from a box in a different city in an area where you will not be caught on CCTV. When ringing up the animal abusers make sure to use a phone box in an area not near your home. Do not pay for the call with a credit card. If you plan on speaking, attempt to muffle your voice. Add 141 just to make life more difficult, although this will not stop police tracing the call."
The newsletter praises members of SHAC - Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty - an organisation that boasts about its intimidation tactics on a website. "We clench our fists in frustration at the injustice of the imprisonment of three of the main SHAC volunteers," rants the editorial. "We can take inspiration from those working outside the parameters of the law and we can push beyond our own comfort levels to help those animals suffering inside HLS . . . animal liberationists are today's freedom fighters."
Supporters of SHAC and the Provisional HLS Campaign are encouraged to use Britain's mail-order catalogue system, which allows anyone to order anything on credit if they provide just a few basic details: name, address and date of birth are enough to run a credit check and then dispatch the goods. As a result many people like me spent the Christmas holidays returning lorry-loads of goods we had never ordered.
The purpose of this seemingly petty irritant is more sinister. Each time an order is made by an imposter using your name and giving your details, the mailorder company runs a credit check, and a credit "footprint" is left on your record. Too many footprints and you are deemed not to be credit-worthy. The newsletter explains that this can lead to targets being refused requests for loans or store cards.
It has been a very tiresome and, especially for some of the elderly people involved, upsetting experience. But I remain puzzled as to why so many seemingly respectable people support what is nothing less than a terrorist organisation.
I received several signed letters, some elaborately illustrated with Bible quotations, appealing to me to remove my non-existent support from HLS. I contacted these people - all women - to explain first, that I had nothing to do with animal experimentation and did not support the Huntingdon outfit, and, secondly, to ask whether they realised what kind of appalling tactics their organisation used. The response was sadly ignorant: "Oh," they said, "only a few people behave like that and I don't condone it; the rest of us just write polite letters."
The SHAC website asks for donations, claiming that "every penny you donate goes directly towards fighting HLS. We have printed and distributed more than two million leaflets and spend in excess of £1,000 a week mailing parcels worldwide. So please donate generously."
Most of us care about animals. But from my experience, anyone wanting to donate generously to their welfare should reconsider before financing a group of terrorists. Instead they might like to write out a cheque to the RSPCA.