Raids elicit reactions

by Joe Carlson

Editor’s note: The issue of animal rights was thrust into the public eye April 5 when activists broke into 12 University labs, taking more than 100 animals and causing about $2 million in damage. Some maintain that the animals were stolen, while others say they were liberated. The following are profiles outlining widely divergent viewpoints on the issue of using animals in medical research. One is the spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front, and the other is a University neurology researcher whose lab was ransacked in the raids.

Just for the record, Kevin Kjonaas isn’t an animal person. He doesn’t have any pets, and he doesn’t get all mushy when he sees a little white bunny rabbit.
“I don’t personally like being around animals,” he says. “I’m allergic to them.”
Kjonaas — pronounced cho-nes — is the much-maligned mouthpiece for the Animal Liberation Front, the animal rights group that claimed responsibility for trashing 12 University labs two weeks ago. Since then, Kjonaas says he has been subject to harassment from the media, shouting matches with police and even death threats on his voicemail.
On Thursday, Sen. Dave Kleis, R-St. Cloud, introduced a bill that would make it a gross misdemeanor to advocate, promote and claim responsibility for a terroristic act like ALF’s recent raid. Kleis has made it no secret that he thinks Kjonaas should be fined and/or thrown in jail for openly advocating ALF’s actions.
Kjonaas has flung himself into the middle of an increasingly passionate national debate about the role of animals in scientific and commercial research. The argument, which some say has Biblical
roots, gets at the heart of concepts like natural rights and justice.
Kjonaas sees similarities in past civil justice movements, like abolition. Slaves were denied rights, he argues, for many of the same reasons animals are: they were seen as unintelligent; they didn’t speak English; they were judged a different species.
“What Harriet Tubman did was criminal, and what the ALF is doing is criminal. Does that make it unjust?
“Time has vindicated Harriet Tubman,” Kjonaas says. “Perhaps in 100 years, the ALF will be heroes too.”
Those are big shoes to fill for a political science senior from the Twin Cities with seven weeks left at the University.
Abolitionist tendencies aside, Kjonaas says he’s like any other student: He likes ice cream, listens to music, enjoys reading and hanging out with friends and has lunch with his mom on Saturdays.
“Other than this, I’m completely normal. I’m not some street punk kid who’s in this for the rebellion aspect of it.”
Actually, Kjonaas is vegan, but he insists there are decent-tasting soy equivalents for just about anything: “With the exception of cheese, everything is just as good.”
He first got interested in animal rights in high school. During a class called “social justice issues,” he decided to give up eating at McDonald’s because he says the company encourages ecological destruction. That led to his disavowal of eating any kind of meat, which led to his interest in progressive authors like Noam Chomsky and Peter Singer.
After 13 years of Catholic school — Kjonaas is an atheist today — he ended up at Augsburg College. There he got involved in the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group and the Student Organization for Animal Rights; he even founded a chapter of Amnesty International.
After a year at Augsburg, he came to the University, where he got course credit from the political science department for an internship with the ALF press office.
“I told them flat out what (the ALF) was and what I’d be doing,” he says, grinning at the irony. “I had to turn in weekly journals.”
That experience led to even greater involvement in animal rights activism. In February, Kjonaas was one of six protesters who locked their necks together in Diehl Hall in protest of primate research at the University.
Although the incident didn’t lead to any direct solutions, Kjonaas views it as a success: “We made every Minnesota media outlet, plus CNN.” And that’s the goal of many animal rights groups — to bring the issue to the public and open up dialogue.
But in the process of getting the public’s attention, the April 5 raids also attracted the scrutiny of the FBI, which has not contacted Kjonaas yet.
Kjonaas says civil disobedience is as far as his animal rights activism has gone. He says he has never taken part in any ALF activity. (Kjonaas was out of town on April 5, and said his dad saved the train ticket to prove it.)
But the phrase “ALF activity” is misleading, because it implies the existence of a defined group. ALF has no card-carrying members, no central organization and no base of operations. Anyone can commit actions on behalf of ALF, provided they follow a strict set of rules, the most important tenet of which is non-violence.
“As long as you freed an animal, exposed what was going on and didn’t harm anybody in the process … that’s the Animal Liberation Front.”
Exposing what is going on is where Kjonaas steps in. He writes the press releases and gives media interviews.
Inside Elliott Hall and the Lions Research Building, Kjonaas says ALF was exposing what they see as unjust experimentation on animals.
“We’re not saying they’re abusing them and they’re being malicious to them,” Kjonaas says. “We’re saying that just the fact that they’re using them … is, in itself, wrong.”