Animal rights advocates and University researchers clash

Dylan Thomas

As a major research institution, the University is home to many medical researchers probing the depths of disease and trying to shed light on the mysteries of the human body.

Some scientists assert the best method to increase the understanding of the human body is through medical testing on animals, a practice that has attracted the ire of many who fight for animal rights.

The animal-rights movement reached a peak on campus in 1999. The militant group Animal Liberation Front struck at the University in a much publicized incident on April 5. In the early hours of a Monday morning, members of the group broke into Lions Research Building and Elliott Hall and vandalized several labs.

A videotape shot by the masked vandals shows them kicking lab doors open, angrily stomping empty metal animal cages and spraying graffiti on lab walls. Amid the destruction, the tape shows pigeons being taken from their cages and slipped into plastic containers.

University officials announced the next day that the group had made off with more than 100 animals – including mice, rats, pigeons and salamanders – being used for research in addition to destroying lab equipment and test samples.

Copies of the video were sent to local television stations. Soon, both local law enforcement and the FBI were involved, and Kevin Kjonaas, a University student who denied participating in the raid but served as spokesman for ALF afterward, was high on the list of suspects.

In September of that year, in another high-profile incident, Matthew Bullard hung in a tent from Moos Tower for several days with a banner reading “stop animal torture.”

Controversial actions like these have drawn criticism even from within the movement because, some activists have said, the drama of the events can detract from the animals themselves.

While all the organizations are moving toward the same ideological goal, today’s campus animal-rights groups try to find a middle ground between attention-grabbing extreme action and the oft-ignored peaceful protest.

Meanwhile, researchers who work with animals must often respond to criticism from activists – people who the researchers feel have directly benefited from animal testing’s contribution to modern medicine.

Beginnings of an activist

like many of those who join the movement, Kevin Kjonaas first became sympathetic to animal rights during high school.

A boycott of McDonald’s for using beef from cattle raised on clear-cut land that had once been rainforest inspired his decision to become a vegetarian for environmental reasons.

Reading books about vegetarianism exposed Kjonaas to animal rights. As he delved into the issue, he came across “Animal Liberation,” a book by Australian philosopher Peter Singer.

“I found it a very profound book that gave me a hard time challenging some of the notions of human rights over animals,” Kjonaas said. “If an animal can feel pain, what right do I have to impose my will over them?”

Kjonaas majored in political science and minored in women’s studies at Augsburg College and later at the University.

When he came to the University, Kjonaas joined the Student Organization for Animal Rights.

During Kjonaas’ time at the University – from the fall of 1997 to the spring of 1999 – SOAR was at the height of its popularity. Kjonaas said that membership peaked around 1999, when there was a core group of 15 to 20 members. Larger meetings with guest speakers and videos attracted as many as 50 to 80 people, he said.

The group’s activities focused on protests and civil disobedience, and although they didn’t engage in ALF-like militant activities, SOAR officially supported them.

Kjonaas became an intern at ALF’s North American press office, then in Minneapolis, for his political science major. He said the press office is the mouthpiece for ALF. Its members do not carry out raids, but are informed of them in anonymous communiques.

Because he was a University student, Kjonaas said ALF chose him to speak on behalf of the vandals responsible for the controversial raid of the Lions Research Building and Elliott Hall.

Raid damage

the University estimated it had suffered $1million to $2 million in damage, as well as setbacks to research from tissue samples destroyed in the days following the raid. Later, the damage estimate was lowered to $750,000.

One of the damaged labs belonged to Timothy Ebner, a University neuroscience researcher. Ebner estimated that his lab suffered approximately $500,000 in damage. He said it took three months to a year to put various projects back together.

And while ALF claimed to have found homes for all the animals, a report came in from someone who had spotted the pigeons along Interstate 94 near Woodbury.

Kjonaas said he doesn’t know what happened to the animals, but he and other activists have said the University planted the research animals spotted by the tipster.

Cynthia Gillett, director of the University’s Research Animal Resources – which manages all animals used for campus research – said she was outraged by claims of a University hoax.

Gillett said it was one of her employees sent to round up the animals, chasing pigeons with ID anklets through the tall marsh grasses. Some rats were also found alive, but many were either frozen to death or eaten by carnivores.

“I have no doubt that (in) some of the liberations that have happened around the country that the animals did end up in homes. These animals did not,” Gillett said.

A month after the break-in, Kjonaas graduated and left for England.

Differing tactics

in the years after the break-in, SOAR’s membership dwindled.

Jillene Ehlers, a SOAR spokeswoman, said last year – when the organization had just three members – was SOAR’s worst.

This year, the group has only two returning members but manages to attract approximately 10 people to its weekly meetings, Ehlers said.

Their efforts focus on tabling -setting up tables around campus with information on veganism and animal rights – trying to get more vegetarian options into dormitory cafeterias and protesting.

Bigger projects include the Primate Freedom Project and pressuring the University to adopt an opt-out policy for students who do not want to perform dissections.

Ehlers said while SOAR still supports the ALF, it is hard to shake the negative image of the raids and Bullard’s protest.

Ehlers said extreme action “doesn’t clear the red tape. It doesn’t get policies changed. It doesn’t get people’s way of thinking changed.”

A fight over proper tactics has occasionally led to a split in the animal rights movement on campus.

Dave Rolsky, a SOAR member from 1996-97, left the group because he opposed the militancy of some members.

Now the board secretary for Compassionate Action for Animals, Rolsky pursues more peaceful means to achieve his goals. His group focuses on education and outreach, vegan literature distribution and open investigations into factory farms.

When members of Rolsky’s group freed 11 hens from a factory farm in LeSeur, Minn., they informed the farm ahead of time. The names and faces of all those involved are included in a video of the event.

Rolsky said he thinks open investigations are more beneficial to the movement as a whole, rather than ALF-style actions that attract more attention to property destruction and vandalism.

“I think, for animal rights right now, (extreme action is) not needed, and it’s not appropriate, and it’s counterproductive,” Rolsky said.

Meanwhile, Kjonaas has not shied away from the militant side of animal-rights activism.

In England, Kjonaas learned from the tactics of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty. The organization focuses all its efforts on Huntingdon Life Sciences, which does contract chemical and pharmaceutical testing on animals.

Kjonaas’ approach to animal rights has evolved to strategically attacking the finances of organizations supporting animal testing.

For the SHAC campaign, Kjonass said, “We went after the banks and after the shareholders, the stockholders, the market makers. Anybody and everybody that had anything to do with Huntington Life Sciences financially, we went after them.”

Kjonaas said SHAC does not participate in direct attacks on researchers or property but the group’s endorsement of the ALF and others who have physically beaten Huntingdon researchers or destroyed property has garnered much controversy.

That controversy doesn’t deter Kjonaas.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with supporting individuals who risk life and liberty to free animals,” he said.

“Whether or not the public regards Ö direct action as fringe or as extremist or terroristic or whatever label they want to put on it, doesn’t really matter to us because the public at large is apathetic and is going to sit on its ass regardless of whether it agrees with us or not,” Kjonaas said.

Researchers speak up

kjonaas likens the different groups of the animal-rights movement – those that approve of militant action and those that promote peaceful methods – to spokes on one wheel, all of which play a role in keeping the wheel moving. What their efforts are moving toward is an end to medical research with animals.

The activists’ argument is that medical testing on animals is bad science. They argue that because animals are different from humans in a variety of ways, extrapolating results from animal-testing to humans leads to inaccuracies.

They also argue that alternatives to medical testing on animals, such as testing on cell cultures or using medical imaging, are viable alternatives.

“I would argue that, had there been money, time and education poured into nonanimal methods, we’d be further along in medical research,” Kjonaas said.

Kjonaas said he is not anti-science but believes medical testing on animals is misguided.

“My grandfather currently has Parkinson’s disease; my grandmother died of Alzheimer’s disease. When I was 14 my best friend died of brain cancer,” he said. “I want nothing more (than) for there to be cures for these diseases. Simply put, I don’t think animal research is going to do it, and I don’t think it has.”

However, researchers point to the direct benefits of animal research and say although they try to limit animal testing with the use of alternatives, cell cultures and medical imaging are not enough.

Ebner, the researcher whose lab was vandalized by the ALF, studies how brain activity relates to motor function. He works with nonhuman primates, monitoring their brain activity while having them perform controlled movements.

He said although he uses models, real nonhuman primates are also needed for his research.

“The problem is, we only have a tiny fraction of information, and to get enough information so that the models really become the sort of tool you’re talking about, you really have to know more like 90 percent of the information,” Ebner said.

Ebner said he can’t use cell cultures because his research focuses on brain activity, which is only present in a live brain.

He also countered the view of animal researchers as coolly unattached to their animals. He said his researchers interact with animals more than most people do with their pets and form just as strong a bond with them.

Ebner also said that the more animal testing is done, the less it is needed, as researchers’ growing knowledge makes modeling more accurate.

Ebner points to the direct benefits research like his has had on treating diseases such as Parkinson’s because it is better understood how the disease works in the brain.

“Work that has been going on for the last 10 years – the type of work I do, others across the country do – you may think it sounds pretty abstract and maybe just academic,” Ebner said. “But in fact it’s led to at least completely new treatments for Parkinson’s disease.”

He said the exciting application of this type of research on the horizon is finding new ways of treating spinal injuries, strokes and quadriplegia, allowing people to recover or interact with robots or computers.

“People who can’t, for example, do anything but move their eyelids Ö now Ö are beginning to communicate with computers by using these brain signals,” Ebner said.

But whatever advances are possible with medical testing on animals, the activists’ devotion to their cause remains strong.

Activists like Kjonaas view themselves as fighters in a modern social justice battle, he said. They say they are speaking on behalf of the voiceless animals.

While most choose to speak out peacefully, others do what they think is necessary in this matter of conscience.

“You have to answer to a higher cause beside laws,” Kjonaas said. “You answer to your conscience, and you answer to what you know is right and wrong.”


Dylan Thomas welcomes comments at [email protected]