They know where you live
Under investigation by the police and vilified in the national press as a dangerous militant after nine jail terms, Neil is somewhere on the A1 in a battered blue Ford Escort as he answers his Panasonic mobile phone. “How many police are there? A van load? Right, no problem,” he says, pushing a long flex of blonde hair out of his eyes and turning to smile at his girlfriend Sara next to him in the driver’s seat.
In the past two weeks lifelong animal activists Neil, a portly thirty four year old who is fond of a T-shirt picturing a fox armed to the teeth with the slogan “I’ll give you blood sports pal”, and Sara, a former computer worker in the city have been described as ‘blackmailers’ and ‘financial terrorists’ according to sources who are, by turns, furious or very scared of their recent threats. “This morning they will find out we are serious,” says Neil.
We are speeding towards Huntingdon to the home of a seemingly unsuspecting shareholder - the first of a number of targets country-wide who have earned Neil’s disapproval and are in line for a “surprise 24hr protest.” As we pull onto a grass verge outside the house with its neatly manicured lawns, on the main road to St Ives out of Huntingdon, a police officer videos us and two more make their way over.
Hurriedly Neil turns and hands me a Safeway bag stuffed full of paper. “If the police search the car this is yours alright? Put it in your bag.” Inside are 250 contract notes which former shareholders have sent to Neil as proof that they have sold their shares in a company called Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) which carries out experiments on animals. As we cross the road a police inspector and a PC stop us to ask our names. “Peter Ward,” says Neil.
At the end of March 1700 shareholders of HLS received a letter from a certain Peter Ward telling them to sell their shares in the company or run the risk of demonstrations outside their homes. It plunged the share price of the company into chaos. Immediately the shares fell 20 percent to 16p, 86% lower than their 1997 high of 121p. The previous month fund manager Phillips and Drew dumped an 11 per cent stake in the company after a bomb threat against the company and the names and addresses of its parent company, UBS UK holding, were published in an animal rights newsletter.
The bag I hold contains some 250 assurances from shareholders that they have sold their shares. Accompanying contract notes are letters with widely varying responses. Some say they will shoot on sight or break the bones of any protestors who arrive at their homes, while others thank them for drawing attention to a company that they had shares in which, unbeknown to them, conducted tests on animals.
The owner of the house we have arrived at has refused to sell his shares. As posters of monkeys and beagles taken covertly at labs are propped up against the garden wall, three other activists arrive and drape a huge black banner which says “Huntingdon killers” on a hedge opposite. Sara dresses in a beagle costume and behind us net curtains ruffle occasionally as seventy year old David Braybrook and his wife grimly dig in for the next 24 hours. “They have the right to freedom of speech and as long as its peaceful I don’t mind,” he says nervously through a crack in the front door.
“I used to campaign outside the law but now I don’t,” says Neil excitedly. “We never dreamed we would cause such havoc to the company. The share prices have tumbled and all this shows how fragile the system is. We’re going to make them so hot to handle nobody will deal with them.” Brokers, fund managers and branches of NatWest bank, bankers to HLS, have all been targeted in a campaign that, so far in the short-term, has caused real damage.
Yet these days animal rights protestors are more likely to read the FT than the Socialist Worker. They hold shares in the companies they target in order to get access to sensitive company information and shareholders’ meetings. And when protestors from London Animal Action stormed a reception by West LB Panmure, brokers to HLS, breaking glasses and causing disruption it proved their ring of “informers” in the city, giving the low down on every move by companies linked to animal experiments, is more than adept.
In the bigger picture the city and global capital is a growing target for activists. In February Fidelity Investments, the British arm of the giant US based global pension house was targeted by protestors from Reclaim the Streets and the Gaia foundation who objected to the companies investments in OXY Petroleum which is in dispute with the U’wa Indian tribes people in Colombia. And in January insurance companies came under fire to invest ethically following a report from Friends of the Earth which shamed top life companies which invest in businesses which they claim harm the environment.
Yet this is the first time individuals have been targeted and other direct action groups are watching this pioneering campaign with interest. Says Sara, “We never dreamed it would be this successful - the shares are almost worthless. Environmental groups I have spoken to are looking at the same way of campaigning and I can see a big campaign like this against the meat industry next…”
Towering above the benign Cambridgeshire landscape, Huntingdon Life Sciences, with its security cameras and double fences topped with razor wire resembles, not so much a scientific laboratory as a top secret MoD base. Inside today Colin hesitates over the play button on his ansaphone and then presses it exhaling sharply. “I hope you die of cancer,” spits a woman, her voice staring with malice through the tinny speaker on the phone. “And I hope your wife dies of cancer and I hope your children do too.” Another voice follows the bleep. “You should have been aborted as a foetus.” In all the ten messages he received today, which is like any other day, run along similar lines.
Staff at Huntingdon, the largest provider of contract pre-clinical safety and efficacy testing in the UK and the second largest in the world, are well used to this by now. Daily they receive threatening phone calls, hate mail, staff are followed home and have had their homes attacked. Before Christmas staff were briefed by officers from Scotland Yard on how to take precautions. Every day they run a knot of protestors who stand outside with megaphones heckling anyone who leaves or enters as “evil murderers.” All this is aside from the mass demonstrations outside where protestors are bussed in from all over the country.
Colin is a pseudonym and all staff I spoke to wouldn’t give names and insisted I keep physical descriptions to a minimum. “If you don’t my wife and children and me will be put in severe danger,” says Colin who works in the monkey labs and is visibly nervous. “They say we are cruel, wicked and we abuse animals. But we’re human beings and at the end of the day we’ve got families to go back to,” he says.
“The main reason I work here is because I love animals but the most satisfaction comes because what we do here is for the good of mankind and, animals too, as we also test veterinary drugs. What annoys me is when you see Bridget Bardot or somebody else on page three of the paper speaking out about animal experiments and then on page ten is a short article about a new cure for a horrible disease. Why can’t people put two and two together? They just don’t associate them.”
Huntingdon, in a bid to calm the maelstrom has offered to show me around “anywhere I want to go” to demonstrate that experiments are humane and animals healthy and kept in the best possible conditions. In the company’s troubled 49-nine year history an undercover Channel 4 investigation in 1997 showed lab technicians beating whimpering dogs. An outcry followed and Jack Straw the Home Secretary said Huntingdon’s licence was under threat. Shares in the company were suspended the next day. The Home Office revoked HLS’s licence until November 1997 and imposed 16 conditions for the company to meet before it could operate again. HLS made the changes and its licence was renewed.
Yet orders continued to evaporate and major shareholders continued to bail out. A new share issue in June 1998 caused shares to be suspended a second time and chief executive Christopher Cliffe said, “the campaigners had almost succeeded in the company’s destruction.” NatWest and two other foreign banks bailed the company out with a £24m loan and the order books are full once again. Although to NatWest’s cost it’s branches are now subject to protests, damaged cashpoints and broken windows.
Monkeys I saw were testing a new AIDS drug and were housed two to a 12 foot high cage. Beagles were kept in kennels with bedding and had toys to play with. Yet at the end of any study all are put to sleep and autopsy’s carried out. Of those animals tested 98% are rodents, fish and birds, 1% dogs, 0.6% monkeys and 0.4% cats.
According to the Department of Health and Medicine Control agency all new drugs must be tested on animals. They are used to test the safety of human and veterinary medicinal drugs and agro-chemicals at the very last stage of the development process. An ethical review process committee board comprising a Home Office Inspector, vets, scientists, non-scientists, animal welfare officer and two professors of animal welfare from Sheffield and Cambridge universities has the right to veto any test if it is not deemed necessary. And as Colin says, “One irony the animal protestors miss is that with all the money they spend on demos and leaflets and what we have spent on security keeping them out it all could have been poured into finding new ways of research without animals.”
A point Dr Frank Bonner director of science and technology at Huntingdon, nicknamed ‘Dr Death’ by activists, wholeheartedly agrees with. “We don’t have a vested interest in working with animals. Good science is good business and if there was an alternative to animal testing of course we would use it,” he says. “ It is an affront to me as a scientist and my colleagues and the decades of research that we are here just because we like torturing animals. It’s preposterous. All these animal rights people will do is drive testing out of this country to a place where standards are not so rigorous and the data not so reliable. The animals will suffer because of this too. They will not stop testing because pharmaceutical companies and the government demand it.”
He is saddened by what he sees as the possible demise of a bio-medical revolution in this country. “The potential for finding developments for beating disease now is phenomenal,” he says. “If we drive research out of this country we are driving science away which will have a major economic fall out. So far it is a great success story and we have a lot to be proud of. The protestors run on pure emotion and refuse to believe anything that doesn’t further their cause.”
In the storm over ethical investment and the fierce vivisection debate some investors in Huntingdon do so for ethical reasons. Janet (not her real name) bought several thousand shares in Huntingdon five years ago as her husband was dying of multiple sclerosis. “I bought them because we have to invest and find a solution to these terrible illnesses,” she says. Since the campaign to out investors she has sold her shares. “I have been blackmailed by this Peter Ward. How can they target us in this way when this is a legitimate business sanctioned by the Government? I just don’t want to see my family hurt and its not worth the risk. They are terrorists.”
Some factions of the animal rights movement have earned the tag the “biggest terrorist threat on mainland Britain.” Scotland Yard’s Special Branch keeps track of animal rights activists with its National Public Order Intelligence Unit. Hardline activists are responsible for letter bombs, arson attacks, Molotov cocktails and death threats. Dr Patrick Headley, a medical sciences researcher at Bristol University escaped unscathed when his car was blown up in 1990, allegedly by animal rights activists. However, shrapnel lodged in the spine of John Cupper, a 13 month old toddler, as he sat in a pushchair nearby.
There are some 3000 animal rights groups in Britain, one of the most hard-line is the Animal Liberation Front and other groups calling themselves the Justice Department and the Animal Rights Militia. On web sites there are lists of ‘prisoners of conscience’ jailed for their animal rights activities. And mimicking the IRA hunger strikes of the 80’s Barry Horne, currently serving 18 years for bombing labs on the Isle of Wight and attempting to blow up a Bristol lab, went on hunger strike for 68 days to protest against animal experimentation.
Robin Webb, a softly-spoken former civil servant, is press officer for the Animal Liberation Front. He is at pains to make clear that it is a funny terrorist organisation that hasn’t killed or seriously injured anyone for the twenty five years since its inception. He denies animal rights activists had anything to do with the maiming of John Cupper. However he says: “It is not terrorism to achieve a kinder, more passionate world. The terrorists are the vivisectionists who blind, burn, scald and mutilate for profit against he weak and innocent.”
Would he condemn violence by animal rights activists? “It is not my place to condemn or condone violence - people have to make up their own minds. The only violence I condemn is animal abuse. If it is justifiable to use violence in pursuit of human liberation then why not animal liberation? If not you are being a speiciest. After all if the animals could fight for themselves many abusers would be dead already.”
Neil has been around the animal rights’ nebulous network of groups all his adult life. He began his shareholder campaign as the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection Reform Group. Yet the BUAV took out a High Court injunction banning them from using their name so Neil and Sara rechristened themselves the Group with No Name. Neil once used to work for the BUAV but now regards them as “weak”. Neil and Sara’s shareholder campaign is linked to the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign started last November by Heather Janes and her partner Greg Avery who has just finished a four month prison sentence for threatening behaviour. Janes has a court order against her banning her from going within one mile of HLS workers while on bail for the assault of an HLS security guard.
As we sit in his local pub in Hemel Hempstead, the Gade and Goose, “my office” says Neil, he describes his campaigning life as he sups lagers. As a dedicated vegan he can’t drink bitter as it contains isinglass filings made from fish. In support of Barry Horne’s hunger strike he and Sara parked a van across Downing Street, blocking access as Sara chained her neck to the wheel. His home and his parents’ home have been raided by police.
He declares himself to be non-violent. “A movement whose sole objective is the eradication of violence against animals is not going to be a movement that is going to use violence against one particular species. I don’t support violence. But you can’t be violent to an object. For example disabling vehicles before a hunt – that is something I would support. There are some in the movement who believe in the tactical use of violence but they are not a significant number at all.”
Although he has been to jail nine times he points out that all sentences, bar one were for non-payment of fines for non-violent offences like obstructing the highway. “The government funds vivisection so I am not going to pay them money,” he says. The longest sentence, three years, was for a hoax bomb sent to a press officer of Glaxo who happened to be pregnant at the time. “It was a box of cat litter,” he says. “As a sign to show we were determined and meant business we left this box of cat litter wrapped up as a bomb. All we thought would happen would be that the army would come along with dogs realise what it was and throw it in the bin. They didn’t and they called the bomb squad out and there was a controlled explosion. I certainly didn’t know that the woman was pregnant at the time.” In prison he carried on his work by rescuing prison budgies from other prisoners.
He started campaigning at the age of 15. His first act of protest was to sabotage bags of apples imported from South Africa at a fruit packaging factory where he worked. The last regular job he held was at BUAV ten years ago before he tried to “reform” them with his shareholder campaign. Since he has done everything from ‘sabbing’ (sabotaging hunts) to protesting against circuses. He claims to have had a £2000 bounty on his head by circus workers and numerous death threats which is why he uses the pseudonym Peter Ward. He and Sara live on benefits in a small flat in Hemel Hempstead and they have an office in Stevenage.
But why animals? “I don’t know really,” he says. “There is lots of campaigning for human rights but animals rarely get a look in.” He sees animals as merely being a different species to humans. “An animal life is the same as a human life,” he says. “In the same way as it is wrong to discriminate against a group of individuals who happen to be a different colour or sex, I think it is wrong to discriminate just because they are another species.”
Yet how does justify a campaign that targets people at home and invades their privacy? “If people continue to invest in then they must think what Huntingdon does is OK - so they won’t have a problem with us telling their neighbours about it. It is a peaceful protest and entirely legal.
He is no doubt as to the righteous of his actions. “Animal experiments don’t work you only have to look back at the Thalidomide scandal to see that. If you test a product on an animal you will see how an animal reacts not a human. Aspirin, great hangover cure for people like me but give it to a cat and it dies. Digitalis, very useful heart drug but give it to a dog and it dies. Humans and animals are completely different: at best [animal testing]it is irrelevant at worst it is dangerously misleading.”
Yet the current shareholder campaign is running the risk of ostracising some animal rights supporters and opponents of Huntingdon. In the current ethical share investment zeitgeist, Lee Coates, chairman of the Ethical Investors Group and a dedicated vegetarian is angered by the shareholder protest. “We completely deplore this,” he says. “This just alienates the public and what we are trying to do. Whether it is peaceful or not, to turn up as a mob on someone’s doorstep does untold damage to our cause. You have to put your money where your mouth is not jump up and down on someone’s doorstep shouting and screaming. I would hope people who invested in Huntingdon just lost their money after the issues have been dealt with logically in the media.”
The campaign has raised a number of privacy issues and John Major, the former prime minister has written to the government asking them to tighten laws about shareholder confidentiality. And while the Bank of Scotland was debating whether to pull the plug on its loan, there were high level ministerial meetings about the firm with the government pledging its backing to HLS.
Yet Neil remains unfazed. He points out that recent campaigns like the one to close Hillgrove cat farm, where animals were bred for experiment and Consort Kennels, near Ross on Wye have both been closed in the past five years due to escalating protests.
At a thinly-attended meeting at Watford library led by Heather Janes of SHAC emotions are stirred and an audience of twenty told that the time is right to “attack.” In a rousing speech she says, “We have the control now. All these people in the city should be punished and made to pay.”
It is some testament to the fragility of investment that Neil and Sara as the Group with No Name and a handful of other protestors can wreak such havoc to share prices and investors. The climate of fear they and other protestors have induced meant many financial institutions wouldn’t even comment.
Yet for Janet who invested because she felt Huntingdon was finding a cure for illnesses, she too is unfazed. “When this campaign stops I’m just going to buy all my shares again,” she says, defiantly.
There is only one limitation to Neil’s campaign. They rescued some budgies recently and while they hoped to travel the country hopping from one shareholders home to another they now have to return home frequently to care for them. On our way to the first protest Neil had a hacking cough and kept sneezing. It was the budgies. Neil is allergic to animals. “It always makes me laugh that,” says Sara.