Their reputations were attacked. Their homes were damaged. Their lives were threatened. But these UCLA scientists refused to back down in the face of assaults by anti-animal-research extremists.
By Mona Gable
Portraits by Mark Berndt
For years, animal-rights extremists have engaged in a campaign to terrorize UCLA faculty who conduct animal research. The homes of these scientists have been vandalized, they have received death threats and been demonized with a barrage of accusations about the alleged harm they are inflicting on animals. A Molotov cocktail intended for the home of one researcher was mistakenly placed on the doorstep of her elderly neighbor. Their addresses have been published on extremist websites.
An ophthalmologist discovered another firebomb under his car and later received an ominous threat warning him to "watch (his) back" because he might face "injections into (his) eyes." His wife received a package containing razor blades, animal fur and oil, with a note urging her to persuade her husband to quit his research or else "what he does to the animals we will do to you."
After years of such harassment, UCLA and the scientists turned to the courts and their own counter-activism. As UCLA Chancellor Gene Block asserted in 2011, during a campus rally in support of animal research: "We will not be deterred from our mission as a public university to create new knowledge that benefits society." He went on to note that animal research is "indispensable," leading us to "greater understanding of the human body" and moving us "closer to new treatments for millions of people battling a wide variety of ailments, such as AIDS, addiction and schizophrenia."
The three scientists profiled here - J. David Jentsch, Ph.D.; Edythe London, Ph.D.; and Dario Ringach, Ph.D. - are among those who have been targeted and whose experience led them to become outspoken advocates for animal research. In February 2012, they were honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science with its Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award for their "rare courage, their strong defense of the importance of the use of animals in research and their refusal to remain silent in the face of intimidation from animal-rights extremists."
Dr. J. David Jentsch: Animal-rights extremists “are not going to push anybody around in this university the way they once did. Not if I have anything to say about it.”
DR. J. DAVID JENTSCH
In the summer of 2010, Dr. Jentsch, a professor of psychology and psychiatry, was attending a conference when he received an e-mail urging him to look at a website. Dr. Jentsch clicked on the link, which took him to Negotiation Is Over, or NIO, a radical animal-rights group.
The webpage post, by NIO leader Camille Marino, showed a chalk outline of a human form and the following words: "It is my personal belief that if you are a sadistic animal torturer, that is all you deserve - a chalk outline." It went on to name Dr. Jentsch and to state that the thought of his death at the hands of animal-rights activists "amuses me immensely." The post concluded: "NIO is no longer mincing words. This is war!"
It was not the first time Marino had targeted Dr. Jentsch, whose research in non-human primates focuses on understanding the neurobiological underpinnings of methamphetamine addiction and tobacco dependence in teens. The 48-year-old activist had been harassing the scientist for a year, making threatening statements and posting his home address on her website. Previous actions against Dr. Jentsch also included the early-morning firebombing of his car in 2009 (a group called the Animal Liberation Brigade claimed responsibility) and an envelope containing razor blades allegedly tainted with AIDS left in his mailbox, followed by another communiqué warning "HELL AWAITS YOU."
But if the chalk outline on NIO's website was meant to finally intimidate Dr. Jentsch, it didn't. By now, he was fighting back. In the aftermath of the fire bombing and other violent incidents against UCLA scientists, Dr. Jentsch co-founded Pro-Test for Science, a group of faculty, staff and students who support animal research, modeled on an organization at Oxford University. Their first rally on campus drew 700 people.
"I learned a lot through my experience," he says. "Now I'm in a position to help other people. So I feel I'm able to confront the past in a much more positive way because I can help other people with their ongoing crises."
With the help of UCLA legal counsel, Dr. Jentsch filed for a restraining order against Marino. "What we were asking [the judge] to do was not publish my address on the web and to prohibit her from engaging in threatening speech on the web," Dr. Jentsch recalls. The judge initially viewed these requests as potential violations of Marino's First Amendment rights. After asking Dr. Jentsch "a lot of hard questions," the judge took a break. Five minutes later, he came back. He said he'd decided to look at Marino's website and told Dr. Jentsch: "I've made up my mind. We're going to give you the order right here."
Since obtaining the restraining order, attacks against Dr. Jentsch have declined. Last year, demonstrators showed up twice at his house. What changed? The scientists and UCLA spoke out. "They can't get away with this stuff," he says of the extremists. "If they come back next month, we're going to meet them with resistance."
(In an unrelated case, Marino was extradited in March 2012 from her home in Florida to Michigan to face felony charges of stalking a researcher at Wayne State University. Dr. Jentsch had assisted the scientist in obtaining a restraining order against Marino, which she allegedly violated.)
With the atmosphere somewhat calmer, Dr. Jentsch has been able to more fully concentrate on his research, and he has made significant progress in trying to understand why some people may be at greater risk for addiction than others. In 2011, he and colleagues published a landmark study in the Journal of Neuroscience, in which they stated they'd discovered a key protein in monkeys linked to being at risk. He is hopeful the findings will lead to effective therapies that stop the destructive cycle of addiction before it starts. "One of the hardest things in the whole world is to develop prevention," he explains. "In the brain of a kid who has never taken a drug, is there something we could know, a marker of being at risk? Knowing that, could we do something to prevent it from happening?"
And he is engaged in his work with Pro-Test for Science. "Attempts to end the use of animals in basic and biomedical research using threats, harassment, stalking, violence and personal attacks must be condemned by all as a direct assault on the patients who await the development of new therapies and cures," Pro-Test asserts in its mission statement. To which Dr. Jentsch adds that animal-rights extremists "are not going to push anybody around in this university the way they once did. Not if I have anything to say about it."
Dr. Edythe London: Rather than retreat when attacked by animal-rights extremists, she took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times to talk about the importance of using animals to develop treatments.
DR. EDYTHE LONDON
Like her colleague, Dr. Jentsch, Dr. London is interested in addiction. To unravel the mysteries of why some people abuse drugs, she has spent the past three decades studying how brain chemistry changes in people who are caught in the grasp of addictive substances.
Using MRI, PET scans and other brain-imaging techniques, she and colleagues have been searching for areas in the brain that are critical to self-control. And while her studies primarily involve working with humans, it was her collaboration with Dr. Jentsch - studies that validated previous research he conducted in rats and vervet monkeys, thus indicating "the animal model is very faithful to the human condition, and, therefore, evaluation of medications and tests for new treatments that are done in the animal model would in fact be valid" - and an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about her work using primates to understand and treat nicotine addiction in adolescents that attracted the attention, and then the wrath, of animal-rights extremists.
In 2007, the Animal Liberation Front, a group that has been labeled by the FBI as a domestic-terrorist organization, launched an attack one night at London's home. After smashing a back window, they pushed a garden hose through the shattered glass and turned on the tap, flooding the inside of her house and causing more than $30,000 in damage. Not long after, the organization issued a statement addressed to Dr. London. They had been conflicted, the statement said, over whether to flood her house or burn it.
Rather than retreat, Dr. London, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and molecular and medical pharmacology in the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and director of UCLA's Center for Addictive Behaviors, decided to speak out. In November 2007, shortly after the assault on her home, she published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. It described the attack. But more than that, Dr. London also used the article, titled "Why I Use Animals in My Research," as a forum to explain her research and the importance of using animals to develop treatments.
"Our animal studies address the effects of chronic drug use on brain functions such as decision-making and self-control that are impaired in human addicts. We are also testing potential treatments, and all of our studies comply with federal laws designed to ensure humane care," she wrote.
The article did little to fend off the harassment and scare tactics. Four months after the flooding incident, a firebomb exploded on her porch, scorching her front door. At one point, the building in Century City where Dr. London's husband works had to be evacuated because of a bomb threat. Pamelyn Ferdin, a former child-actor-turned-animal-rights activist and the wife of a movement leader, was videotaped leading a group of demonstrators down the street where Dr. London lives.
"She was coaching a bunch of people. 'Tell her she's a Jew! Tell her she's Hitler!'" recalls Dr. London, who is a child of Holocaust survivors. The demonstrators were arrested for violating a city ordinance against targeted picketing.
In a 2010 article in Los Angeles Magazine about the assaults on UCLA scientists, Dr. London took note of the movement's invocation of Holocaust imagery to justify its actions. "It's twisted and it's inflammatory," she said. "Someone figured out it's possible to pull the heartstrings of people by linking these images of the Holocaust to animal researchers."
Since the arrests of the marchers on her street, Dr. London has received fewer threatening e-mails and visits. Like other targeted UCLA scientists, she is protected by 24-hour security and an armed guard at her home, provided by UCLA. "The university has been great," she says. "When you consider that UCLA is a large research university and not a counterterrorism organization, we can't expect them to do the impossible."
Dr. Dario Ringach: Though he no longer works with animals, his voice is among the most vocal in support of animal research.
DR. DARIO RINGACH
It was nearly a decade ago, but Dr. Ringach still remembers the fear, the awful feeling of helplessness. The masked figures would appear out of nowhere in the middle of the night. They would bang on the windows and doors. They'd scream that he was a "monkey killer." His children were 7 and 4 years old.
The police would come, but the demonstrators often were already gone. Who are they? the police would ask. Dr. Ringach didn't know. Call again if they return, he was advised. If the activists were still there when the police arrived, the officers would simply tell them to leave. But no one was arrested.
And they kept coming back.
"It was the feeling of a mob about to invade your house," Dr. Ringach recalls. "My kids were very upset. The young one didn't really understand what was happening. The 7-year-old could understand what they were screaming. He was in my lab many times. He knew how we treated the animals."
And yet, "It's very difficult to tell a 7-year-old, 'Daddy's not a killer.'"
At the time, Dr. Ringach, a professor of neurobiology and psychology, was investigating how visual signals reach the brain. He was working on treatments involving electrical stimulation to the visual cortex to restore sight in patients who'd gone blind. Because the research involved a risk of seizures, Dr. Ringach was first testing these methods in non-human primates.
Despite the protests, Dr. Ringach continued his research. Then in 2006, a bomb intended for one his colleagues, Lynn Fairbanks, Ph.D., was mistakenly placed on the doorstep of her neighbor. "That was the last straw, when they started to play with fire," he says of the extremists.
He had had enough. Dr. Ringach stopped his research. "There was a point I really felt the safety of my family was at stake," he says. "It was either my particular line of research in this type of work or putting the safety of my family on the front line."
Who could blame him? "At the time, Dario was helpless," Dr. Jentsch, a friend and colleague, says. "He didn't know what to do. No one would help him do anything."
After the attempted bombing at Dr. Fairbanks' home, the FBI got involved. Agents came to campus to talk to researchers who had been targeted by the anti-animal-research extremists. When Dr. Ringach asked one of the agents what he could do to protect his family, he told him, "Buy a gun."
Although the extremists claimed they had triumphed by forcing Dr. Ringach to end his research, the soft-spoken scientist has a much different perspective. "It was not just me; there are people all over the world who do this work,"
he says. "The work continues."
For the most part, Dr. Ringach kept a low profile. He didn't talk about what had happened to him. Then, in the early morning hours of March 7, 2009, Dr. Jentsch's Volvo exploded. For Dr. Ringach it was another turning point. He called Dr. Jentsch and the two scientists decided they would stand up to the extremists. Together they founded Pro-Test for Science, and a month later, they led one of the biggest demonstrations in support of animal research ever held on an American university campus.
Dr. Ringach believes it made a difference. Until then, "people didn't know it wasn't just me who was under attack. Now they knew that many researchers were being threatened, that they themselves were under threat. And they also knew that now there was a community they could turn to for support."
Since the rally, Dr. Ringach has become a very vocal and very public face in support of animal research. In 2009, he and Dr. Jentsch co-authored an article in the Journal of Neuroscience condemning anti-animal-research activists and exposing their harassment of scientists. They also urged more researchers to get involved. "Regrettably, the attacks and messages from the anti-research lobby have been presented to the public with little opposing force from the scientific community," he says.
Asked why he finally decided to take such a public stance, Dr. Ringach says, "Part of my fear that things were going to get worse was confirmed when David's car was blown up, when Eydie's [Dr. Edythe London's] home was flooded and then the attempt to light it on fire. I was sad. No one was doing anything. I also felt somewhat protected because I wasn't using animals anymore."
But he also believed he has an ethical obligation to speak out. "I have a sense of responsibility to society. If this research is not done, people will suffer in the future," he says.
He points to recent cancer research at UCLA that led to a groundbreaking therapy for a virulent form of breast cancer. "That came from the study of mice," he says. "Women who have this type of breast cancer can be effectively cured or have a much longer, healthy life because of this work."
Yet, he also sees the need for more discussion about the issue and regularly speaks at conferences and schools. Recently, he participated in a debate at a Los Angeles high school with another scientist who opposes animal research. "They wanted someone with an opposing viewpoint to demonstrate to the children that people can actually differ about these issues. We had an exchange, and I think it was really good. It's an important public debate to have. But it's very difficult when you have people going around blowing up things."
Mona Gable is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.