Throwing in the Towel

UCLA scientist gives up his research involving animals in the face of activists' pressure on him and his family.

August 22, 2006
The constant calls, the people frightening his children, and the demonstrations in front of his home apparently became a little too much.

Dario Ringach, an associate neurobiology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, decided this month to give up his research on primates because of pressure put on him, his neighborhood, and his family by the UCLA Primate Freedom Project, which seeks to stop research that harms animals.

Anti-animal research groups are trumpeting Ringach’s move as a victory, while some researchers are worried that it could embolden such groups to use more extreme tactics.

Ringach’s name and home phone number are posted on the Primate Freedom Project’s Web site, and colleagues and UCLA officials said that Ringach was harassed by phone -- his office phone number is no longer active -- and e-mail, as well as through demonstrations in front of his home.

In an e-mail this month to several anti-animal research groups, Ringach wrote that “you win,” and asked that the groups “please don’t bother my family anymore.”

The North American Animal Liberation Press Office, a resource for the media on “animal liberation actions,” according to the group’s Web site, posted a news release from the Animal Liberation Front, a separate group that sometimes engages in illegal activities, about Ringach’s decision. The press release describes Ringach’s research as torturous and “a far cry from life saving research.” UCLA officials said that groups like ALF often misconstrue information, and that, in the interest of researchers' safety, the university is not releasing detailed information about projects being attacked by such groups.

Colleagues suggested that Ringach, who did not return e-mails seeking comment, was spooked by an attack on a colleague. In June, the Animal Liberation Front took credit for trying to put a Molotov cocktail on the doorstep of Lynn Fairbanks, another UCLA researcher who does experimentation on animals. The explosive was accidentally placed on the doorstep of Fairbanks’s elderly neighbor’s house, and did not detonate.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently investigating the incident. Fairbanks said in an e-mail that the “protests against me are based on complete fabrications that, unfortunately, are believed by many of their followers.” She added that she is sad that Ringach is giving up his work, because he “was making new and important advances in our knowledge about how the brain processes information.”

Upon Ringach’s decision to stop his research, UCLA issued a statement saying that “we all suffer when animal rights activists attempt to intimidate researchers by physically threatening and harassing them and their families, including young children.” The statement added that “to be so extreme as to use violent tactics aimed at halting animal research is to take away hope from millions of people with cancer, AIDS, heart disease and hundreds of other diseases.”

Jerry Vlasak, a practicing physician, a spokesman for the Animal Liberation Press Office, and a former animal researcher, said that “obviously the roughly 30 non-human primates [Ringach] was killing every year would be ecstatic” with his decision to halt his work. Vlasak said that when he was an animal researcher, he published papers on his work, but didn’t feel that he contributed anything important to society. As to the Molotov cocktail, Vlasak said that “force is a poor second choice, but if that’s the only thing that will work … there’s certainly moral justification for that.”

Leo T. Furcht, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, said that extreme anti-animal research tactics have a longer tradition in Britain, where he said some of his colleagues gave up their cars rather than having them searched for bombs every day. Still, Furcht said, he doesn’t think “that these acts of extremism are going to deter the broad class of researchers.”

Furcht, who is head of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said that, a few years ago, some people let a bunch of birds and mice out of their cages in Minnesota labs. Furcht added that, because it was winter, the animals “undoubtedly died. It’s really a form of terrorism.” ALF claimed responsibility for a similar action at the University of Iowa, where animals were released and equipment damaged. Furcht, and other experts who follow the issue, said that extreme actions are on the rise in the United States, partly because organizing and disseminating a target’s personal information has become very easy using the Web.

Mary Hanley, executive vice president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, said that actions against pharmaceutical companies have definitely been on the rise. Hanley said that the association is hopeful about legislation that has been introduced in both the House and the Senate.

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act would make it a federal crime to harass or cause “economic disruption” to animal researchers, suppliers, and even people who might be tangentially associated with a researcher, like, for instance, a researcher’s babysitter. Hanley said that the legislation would make it a crime not only to carry out such “economic disruption,” like bombarding someone with non-stop phone calls, but also to organize such a campaign, “so they can’t say, ‘well, I didn’t do it,’” Hanley said. The House bill has 36 sponsors, six of whom are Democrats, and the Senate bill has five Republican sponsors.



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