The truth about ‘animal rights terrorism’

Statistics reveal that it consists of rare and mostly minor incidents carried out by a handful of losers. So why is everyone so obsessed with it?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

Britain is ‘the Afghanistan of animal rights extremism’, said a security analyst earlier this year, conjuring up images of a network of terrorists – or ‘thugs and terrorists’, as he called them – gathering in secretive camps and ruthlessly plotting a campaign of bloody violence against scientists and researchers.

Prime minister Tony Blair gave sanction to the idea that British animal rights extremists are part of a global terror threat when he met with President George W Bush at the end of last month. As well as discussing such heated issues as the Israel-Lebanon war and radical Islamist terrorism, Blair presented Bush with a ‘progress report’ on Britain’s own war against animal rights extremism, in the hope that it might encourage more American pharmaceutical companies to invest in British research.

Meanwhile, media commentators continually fret about animal rights terrorism and the threat it apparently poses to science and the fabric of society. Later this month BBC journalist Michael Buerk will present a TV documentary in which, in a reportedly ‘extraordinary attack’, he will ‘blast animal rights protesters as “terrorists”’ (1). Guardian columnist Michael White says that one of the few things that upsets him is ‘the willingness of extreme animal rights campaigners to resort to all forms of intimidation’. He even compares animal rights activists who harass their fellow human beings to earlier dark political movements that terrorised civilians. ‘We had quite enough of [this] dehumanisation of opponents in the twentieth century not to want to carry it into the twenty-first’, he wrote (2).

The government has expanded its crime and terror legislation to cover the intimidatory tactics used by some animal rights protesters, because, in the words of former home secretary Charles Clarke, ‘Animal rights terrorism is something that has to be attacked’ (3).

Animal rights terrorism? What animal rights terrorism? Listening to this debate you could be forgiven for thinking that groups of men and women armed with guns and bombs are holding British medical research hostage. In truth, those animal rights campaigners who do use intimidation in their activities are a ragbag collection of former schoolteachers and vicar’s sons who have never demonstrated a capacity to cause serious harm or damage to the science establishment. And historically, they have proved far better at killing themselves than anybody else.

They are a pest, no doubt, possessed of a degraded and misanthropic outlook that believes humans are no better than animals and that ‘rats have rights’. But they are also pathetic, pretty insignificant and ever-more erratic, and in no way deserving of the fearful attentions of everyone from Bush and Blair through to leading security officials, the medical research community and the British commentariat.

The extremists’ heyday is over

For all the present handwringing over animal rights extremism and terrorism, the heyday of such activities was in the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties. It’s notoriously difficult to get facts and figures about the number and size of violent actions by animal rights activists over the past 20 years; such things only started to be seriously measured, by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, in 2002. However, it is broadly accepted that the ‘high point’ for animal rights extremism – certainly in terms of violence and media stunts – occurred between 1985 and 1995. Since then, animal rights groups have largely engaged in small protests outside individuals’ homes or workplaces and in occasional acts of arson or intimidation.

The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) was founded in 1976, and the Animal Rights Militia in 1985 – both groups are said to have used violence, though the ALF claims that it does not support violence against people. For all the hysterical arguments about an Afghan-style network of animal rights extremists in Britain, even the ALF, the most notorious group, does not have a centralised structure with a leadership or ‘troops’. Rather, it is pretty much a media organisation, consisting mainly of a website and a press office that publicises the usually small-scale actions of various ‘freelancers’ who support the ALF. As the pro-research group the Research Defence Society says, ‘The ALF has never been an organisation with members and a constitution: it is a badge of convenience. Extremists carry out actions in its name, or in the name of other, similarly unstructured groups.’ (4)

In the period from 1985 to 1995, some animal rights extremists actually detonated a few high explosive devices, which they no longer do today. In the 1980s there was a sporadic bombing campaign, in which letter bombs and firebombs were directed against leading scientists and some politicians. No one was killed or seriously injured in that campaign. The period of 1989/1990 was the first and last time that activists used high explosives. They blew up Senate House at Bristol University (in the middle of the night when it was empty) in February 1989 using plastic explosives; in May 1990 they planted plastic explosive devices under the cars of two scientists in the West Country, both of which exploded but without injuring the scientists (5).

In 1993/1994, there was a campaign of sending dangerous postal devices to scientists, including mousetraps primed with razor blades in padded envelopes, small explosives in parcels, and also hoax bombs. By the middle of 1994, 100 such devices had been sent. Again there were no fatalities or serious injuries. A group called the Justice Department claimed responsibility for the postal campaign, and the activists responsible were all eventually caught, charged and given lengthy prison sentences (6).

Alongside these violent tactics, some activists executed headline-grabbing stunts, including the infamous contamination scares. In the late Eighties there was the Mars Bar Hoax, when animal rights activists led Mars to believe that some of its stock had been poisoned in protest at the use of monkeys in tooth-decay experiments. The withdrawal of stock and bad publicity cost Mars an estimated £3million in lost sales. Similar contamination hoaxes were played on Lucozade and L’Oreal (7).

Even during this ‘heyday’, animal rights extremists hardly posed a great threat. These were handfuls of individuals, sometimes even loners, who decided to do something shocking and outrageous in the name of those ‘badges of convenience’ the ALF or the Animal Rights Militia, or perhaps in the name of their own fancily-titled group that they conjured up while sitting at home. So when those behind the postal-device campaign in 1993/1994 were banged up, such methods of intimidation came to a halt – there was no movement or group of comrades to continue the campaign, which had been the work of some cranky individuals.

After 1994, there was a notable decline in violent tactics among animal rights activists, who instead focused their energies on protesting outside homes or research laboratories, sending menacing letters to or intimidating scientists and their supporters, and occasionally smashing windows and damaging cars. In 2001, Brian Cass, MD of the medical research company Huntingdon Life Sciences, was savagely beaten by three activists with baseball bats – an incident which stands out because, today, it is quite rare for activists to use such naked violence.

Yet despite the general decline in bombings and big media stunts, there seems to be greater political and cultural concern, from the top of the government down, with ‘animal rights terrorism’ today than there was in 1985-1995, when there actually existed something approximating animal rights terrorism. This would suggest that there is something more to today’s constant demands for clampdowns on the ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’ than the facts and figures relating to their activities.

The truth about today’s ‘extremist incidents’

Today, you will sometimes read newspaper articles which say there are still, 10 years after the heyday ended, hundreds of animal rights ‘extremist incidents’ every year in the UK. Yet if you break the figures down, you’ll see that most of these incidents are small-scale, sometimes even insignificant; they could not seriously be defined as terrorism.

Since 2002, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has been collating figures relating to animal rights activism. Most of the media coverage on the number of activities is based on these figures. Yet the media’s interpretation can sometimes be misleading. For example, one report claimed that in 2005 there were ‘around 1,500 animal rights incidents’ (8). It is true that the ABPI report shows around 1,500 ‘incidents’ in that year, but its clear and uncomplicated figures show that the vast majority of those incidents were demonstrations. Out of 1,508 incidents, 1,205 were demonstrations.

Likewise, of 1,692 incidents in 2004, 1,077 were demonstrations; of 1,414 incidents in 2003, 914 were demonstrations; and of 1,115 incidents in 2002, 830 were demonstrations. The average number of demonstrators at these events in each year shows up how pathetic these collections of activists are. In 2002, there was an average of 13.9 demonstrators at each demo; in 2003 that fell to an average of 12.5; it fell again in 2004, to an average of 10.1, and again in 2005 to an average of 8.9.

No doubt some of these demos were irritating. According to the ABPI, ‘Nearly all demonstrations are accompanied by noise, for example with megaphones and drums, and are usually intimidating in nature’. But extremism? Terrorism? It doesn’t seem so. And if we are going to problematise all demonstrations that are noisy, or even ‘intimidating in nature’, that is a recipe for further restricting the right to protest in Britain. It is in the nature of protesting to be loud, sometimes even obnoxious.

Leaving aside protests, some animal rights activists do engage in cowardly acts of intimidation. But the number of such acts remains fairly low and it seems to be falling. If you exclude protests from the list of animal rights incidents between 2002 and 2005, there are also the following categories:

— ‘Abusive or threatening letters or text messages.’ These tend to fluctuate. There were 23 such incidents in 2002, 38 in 2003 and then a big rise to 108 in 2004; however, they fell to 36 in 2005. No doubt such letters and text messages can be distressing for those who receive them, but the numbers are quite small. For example, there were fewer threatening letters or texts in the 2002/2003 period (61) than there were dangerous postal devices in the earlier 1993/1994 period (over 100).

— ‘Blockades.’ This is when activists block the entrance to a research facility or breeding farm: there were three blockades in 2002 and four in 2003, but none in 2004 or 2005.

— ‘Phone, fax, email blockade.’ Again, the number of these tends to fluctuate. There were 21 in 2002, 40 in 2003, 37 in 2004, but only eight in 2005.

— ‘Fireworks (large, targeted at private residences).’ This rather peculiar category, where activists fire fireworks into the gardens or against the windows of researchers’ and others’ homes, seems to have been popular in 2002, but no longer. There were 34 such incidents in 2002, 12 in 2003, but none in 2004 or 2005.

— ‘Damage to company, personal and public property.’ This illegal activity can include everything from usually small-scale acts of arson to the smashing of windows or the damaging of cars. Often it comes across more like the work of overgrown teenagers than serious terrorists. In 2002 there were 60 such incidents; in 2003 there were 146; in 2004 there were 177; and in 2005 there were 85.

— ‘Intimidation.’ In terms of potentially the most distressing animal rights activity, where they harass those who work in or around medical research, there has been a steady decline over the past two years. In 2002 there were 135 ‘home visits’, where activists go to the home of a worker, usually in the middle of the night, and make noise or leave a threatening note of some sort; in 2003 there were 259 home visits; in 2004 there were 179; in 2005 there were 57. The ABPI announced just last month that for the first six months of 2006 home visits have, again, ‘declined dramatically to just 15 – under half the number in the same period last year and 14 per cent of the total for the first six months of 2004’ (9). The ABPI figures also contain the category ‘Personal attack, slight injury’: there were seven incidents in 2002, one in 2003, none in 2004, and six in 2005.

What kind of ‘terrorists’ cause between zero and seven ‘slight injuries’ in any given year? Or fire fireworks rather than missiles? Or send abusive letters rather than letters with bladed-mousetraps in them, as animal rights activists did in the past? A closer look at the facts and figures behind animal rights activities suggests they tend to be small-scale, sporadic and still quite rare. They also show that such activists are becoming more and more isolated and opportunistic. With increased security and surveillance at research labs, following the activities of 1985-1995, activists are increasingly forced to chuck firecrackers into individuals’ gardens, or send them rude texts, or shout outside their home at 1am in the morning. No doubt this is distressing for some of those on the receiving end, who should take whatever measures they deem necessary to get these brattish misanthropes off their property. But it does not add up to ‘terrorism’, or even very much ‘extremism’ – certainly not of the variety that requires a big debate between Bush and Blair or specific new sections of legislation to deal with it.

Where animal rights activists occasionally break the law and harass or intimidate individuals, the police should deal with it. But to call for heavy-handed ‘anti-terror’ measures to sort them out is not only an overreaction – it is also a demand for the law to fight our battles for us, as if the arguments and the protests of these animal rights activists are too scary and dangerous to face down by ourselves. Do we have such little conviction in the rightness of animal research and scientific endeavour?

The micro-gangs behind animal rights extremism

A recurring feature of illegal animal rights activism over the past 20 years is that small groups of three or four individuals seem to be behind most of the campaigns. Once one or more of those individuals is taken out of the picture – by being put in prison, for example – the actions tend to cease. This demonstrates that we are not talking about a broad network here, which might require the intervention of intelligence or the government, but micro-gangs who should be dealt with by the police if and when they break the law.

So in 1993/1994, when various individuals were charged and convicted with executing the postal-device campaign, it came to a stop. We are likely to see a similar reduction in some animal rights activism following the imprisonment of four activists in May this year for their role in the grotesque theft of Gladys Hammond’s body from a graveyard in Staffordshire. The body was stolen as a means of blackmailing the late Mrs Hammond’s son-in-law, who ran the Darley Oaks guinea pig breeding farm. Jon Ablewhite, a vicar’s son and former schoolteacher, Kerry Whitburn, a psychiatric nurse with dreadlocks and a nose piercing, and John Smith were given 12-year sentences; Josephine Mayo (Whitburn’s girlfriend) was given four years.

They were a typical micro-gang: they were friends, two of them were in an intimate relationship, and they were behind a string of illegal actions over the past 10 years. Smith had been convicted in the Nineties of smashing a car into a butcher’s shop window, a rather bizarre form of protest against the meat industry; Ablewhite served nine months for his part in attacking the home of someone related to a managing director at the medical research company Huntingdon Life Sciences; Whitburn had a string of offences related to some pretty high-profile animal rights activism, including trying to steal monkeys from a pet shop in Nottingham.

A recent attack on an elderly woman and her 21-year-old grandson in Richmond, Surrey, was also the work of such a micro-gang. Last month, animal rights activists Natasha Avery, Heather Nicholson and Daniel Wadham were given prison sentences for setting upon the woman and her grandson after spotting a pro-hunting sticker in their car window. Avery and Nicholson have a string of convictions going back 10 years for their involvement in animal rights activism – and they are the wife and ex-wife of Greg Avery, founder of the pressure group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty. Avery has also been in trouble with the law for animal rights activism. These incidents capture the small-scale and incestuous nature of animal rights groups.

Such individuals do not pose a threat to the nation, or to science and research. These are loners and fantasists. One animal rights activist caused a storm in 2004 when he claimed that assassinating scientists who work in biomedical research would save animal lives: ‘I don’t think you’d have to kill too many [of them]. I think for five lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, two million, 10 million non-human lives.’ (10) But the fact is that, after 30 years of occasional violence by animal rights activists, they have killed nobody – except occasionally themselves. In 1991, animal rights activist Mike Hill died during a hunt saboteur protest; in 1995 Jill Phipps died after being crushed by a lorry during a protest against the exportation of veal calves to Europe; in 2001, animal rights icon Barry Horne died on hunger strike in jail. These must be the only ‘terrorists’ who have killed more of themselves than of anybody else.


Animal rights activists or extremists are not the biggest threat to medical research. They are not leading a charge against science and progress. On the contrary, it would be more accurate to say that they are parasitical on a broader doubt and suspicion that exists today about the work of scientists, and the idea that humans should intervene in nature, push science forward, and ‘play God’. Obsessing over these individuals is a massive displacement activity. Rather than address the cause of today’s anti-science sentiment, too many people are trying to clamp down on the most degraded symptom of the sentiment: activists who believe that rat and dogs and humans are all pretty much the same.

These small groups feed off a top-down uncertainty about animal testing, and scientific inquiry itself. The reason they have been able to dominate the debate about animal research in recent years is not because they are strong or powerful or especially disruptive; indeed, all the evidence suggests that their numbers are becoming smaller and their actions less threatening and, if the Hammond body theft and the attack on the pro-hunting grandmother are any indication, more self-destructively erratic. Rather, animal rights activists and protesters sound loud only because everyone else has remained so quiet.

Consider the issue of primate experimentation. It is widely assumed that the reason why Cambridge University shelved, in January 2004, its plans to build a world-class primate research centre is because of the antics of animal rights activists. No doubt the activists’ constant protesting and threats had an impact on those involved in the project, from the builders to the scientists. But it is much more likely to have been official dithering about the worth of primate research that put paid to the Cambridge project. The government failed publicly to support the research institution until it was too late; research on great apes (chimps, gorillas and orang-utans) was banned in 1986, under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act; and the Animals Procedure Committee, which advises the home secretary on matters relating to the Animals Act, says it has the goal of ‘minimising and eventually eliminating primate use and suffering‘. So presumably it was opposed to, or at least uncertain about, the building of the Cambridge facility.

This is the real problem: not a handful of big-mouthed animal-lovers in anoraks, or scary ‘terrorists’ with imaginary bombs, but a defensiveness about research at the heart of government and the scientific establishment itself. Such equivocation effectively gives a green light to animal rights activists to continue shouting about the allegedly dodgy things going on inside labs and research facilities, and to harass those who work on them. After all, if society is red-faced about something like primate research, declaring that its ultimate aim is to wind it down, then what is to stop activists from loudly demanding that it be banned right now? Officialdom’s unwillingness to stand up and defend the important work of medical researchers effectively makes such workers fair game for the attentions of anti-science elements.

Now, the government and its supporters are trying to do with heavy-handed laws what they have failed to do with words and actions – defend medical research. Unable to articulate the argument for such research in any meaningful way the government chooses to chase after a bunch of no-mark animal rights activists instead. But the best way to stop animal rights activism is to defend, loudly and proudly, the work of animal researchers – and to stop depicting some disgruntled losers as a terrible and evil threat.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Animals

(1) Michael Buerk exclusive: animal rights activists ‘terrorists’, Mirror, 7 August 2006

(2) Humans are animals too, Comment Is Free, 12 May 2006

(3) Terror laws will apply to animal rights lobby, The Times, 25 October 2005

(4) The first 25 years, Research Defence Society, January 2006

(5) The first 25 years, Research Defence Society, January 2006

(6) The first 25 years, Research Defence Society, January 2006

(7) The first 25 years, Research Defence Society, January 2006

(8) Blair vows robust action against animal rights extremists, Yahoo! News, 2 February 2006

(9) ‘Sea change’ in level of attacks by animal rights extremists, ABPI, 26 July 2006

(10) Kill scientists, says animal rights chief, Observer, 25 July 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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