Editor’s note (July 27): Read the response to this article, “Opinion: Hold Animal Use Committees Accountable for Their Failures,” by PETA advisor Lisa Jones-Engel, here.
The escalating harassment of scientists and public health officials has become a sinister and alarming trend. According to a recent study released by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, there were 1,499 unique reports of harassment across local health departments in the US during the initial stages of the pandemic. Academic researchers—especially infectious disease experts who publicly urged vaccinations and mask-wearing—experienced this growing rage as well. A report published in the March 24, 2022 issue of Science revealed that threats and harassment of researchers is on the rise, with 38 percent of surveyed scientists reporting at least one type of recent attack, including insults and death threats.
While this may seem like a unique, new challenge for the science community, it’s not. Researchers who conduct animal studies are all too familiar with threats of violence and much worse. I repeatedly witnessed these kinds of menacing actions firsthand while serving for several years as communications director at one of the US’s National Primate Research Centers. At that time, approximately ten years ago, emails, calls, and letters threatening bodily harm were sadly commonplace. But those communications were far from the worst of the intimidation I observed.
For several months, animal rights groups targeted our scientists and their families at home on a weekly basis. Each Sunday, masked activists showed up at their doors. They repeatedly and loudly chanted things such as, “We know where you sleep at night!” They held banners and pressured scientists to quit their jobs to avoid additional harassment. When departing, the crowds would taunt “We’ll be back!” Sadly, they kept their promise, returning to scientists’ homes week after week. Around that same time, one researcher had their home vandalized with spray paint. At another house, two cars were severely damaged with acid and paint. The message being sent was loud and clear: They could easily get to us.
The weekly harassment finally ended around the time of a highly-publicized court verdict in 2006. In that trial, six activists affiliated with a group called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty were convicted of inciting violence and stalking people connected to a New Jersey contract research company. The result clearly had a major impact. Animal rights extremism significantly declined in the US, according to data compiled by the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Until now. Sadly, menacing language and acts fueled by misinformation campaigns appear to be on the rise once again.
This is why many of us involved in animal research were heartened by two recent court rulings, one at the state level in California, the other at the federal level. In both of these noteworthy cases, judges recognized the dangers of escalating violent and threatening rhetoric aimed at health researchers.
The most recent case involved the University of Washington (UW). There, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) repeatedly and aggressively attempted to obtain the names of current and past Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) members at the university. These committees, which exist at most major research institutions, are formal bodies required by the Animal Welfare Act and staffed by veterinary and health research experts along with ordinary citizens who represent the surrounding community. These panels help protect laboratory animals by rigorously reviewing all research proposals before any studies are allowed to commence. They can require changes to ensure the use of animals is necessary, appropriate, and ethically sound. They can even reject proposals if these criteria are not met.
For the most part, service on IACUC committees is voluntary. And because these panels are required by law, the need to ensure member safety is paramount. Imagine trying to staff an IACUC or recruit future members if participation exposed volunteers to targeting and harassment.
This was precisely the concern for several IACUC members at UW following a series of alarming incidents, including the harassment of staff at their private residences. In December 2020, masked protesters showed up armed with signs calling out staff by name, at private homes where children and other family members were present.
We need to develop solutions that balance the public’s right to know with reasonable safety provisions for those who conduct and oversee animal research.
These incidents were not the sole reason why committee members had serious concerns about PETA’s requests for their personal information. IACUC meetings, which are open to the public under Washington state law, have become increasingly disruptive and disturbing. Activists attending via Zoom have repeatedly interrupted and aggressively challenged committee members. They’ve called IACUC staffers “sadistic” and “Nazis.” They’ve even likened UW’s health research facilities to Auschwitz, Hitler’s notorious WWII death camp where more than 1.1 million men, women, and children were murdered.
Animal rights activists also sent countless threatening emails, letters, and voice messages to UW staff involved in animal studies. One referred to health researchers as “vile [expletive] humans,” adding “I’m going to do what is necessary to stop animal research.” Based on this long list of incidents, a US District Court judge ruled in favor of modest and reasonable protections for UW’s IACUC members, barring the university from releasing their names to PETA.
A judge in California reached a similar conclusion. There, the University of California, Davis, prevailed in a state civil lawsuit filed by PETA. In that case, the animal rights group sought access to unpublished research data collected by two researchers at the California National Primate Research Center. A State Superior Court judge determined that releasing the material would not only undermine academic freedom, it would also increase the risk that researchers could face physical harm and harassment from activists.
PETA says it plans to appeal the UW case, saying it requested the identities of more than 70 current and past committee members simply to verify the university’s IACUC met federal guidelines. However, as the recent US District Court ruling notes, this question has been raised repeatedly by PETA and other animal research opponents over a period of several years. And each time, the statute-appointed authorities with regard to IACUC requirements have verified the UW committee is in full compliance.
So what needs to happen next?
We at Americans for Medical Progress believe it’s time for leaders at our nation’s public and private research institutions, along with federal, state, and local officials, to follow the courts’ lead and take the harassment and intimidation of animal researchers much more seriously. We need to develop solutions that balance the public’s right to know with reasonable safety provisions for those who conduct and oversee animal research, much of which eventually benefits human health.
In addition, the animal research community needs to embark on a broad public education campaign. Americans deserve a fundamental understanding of how the biomedical research process works, how humans and animals directly benefit, and who will be hurt if we prematurely phase out animal studies. We also need to counter the flood of animal rights propaganda that fuels rising levels of hatred and anger.
America’s courts are beginning to respond to calls for help from the research community. We now need others who are in positions of authority to listen and respond as well.