Professor, Bar the Door

Christopher Henderson

A few weeks ago, faculty and staff at the University of Minnesota got an ominous memo from Richard Bianco, an assistant vice president with the school's Academic Health Center. "Animal rights activists have declared July 28 through August 4 a national week of action against the University of Minnesota," the note warned. "We anticipate that there may be activity at any time."

The "activity" Bianco and other University officials are most worried about, he explains, is a repeat of an April attack on the school's biomedical research labs, which according to University officials resulted in an estimated one million dollars of property damage and destroyed "invaluable" research material. The raiders, affiliated with the international animal rights organization known as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), also removed more than 100 pigeons, white rats, and salamanders being used in Alzheimer's research. Although many of the animals were later recovered in fields near Woodbury, the incident sparked concern that the University--a national center for neurological research involving animal testing--would be the target of future attacks. "We've had an active animal rights community for years," Bianco explains, "so [the raid] didn't catch me totally by surprise. They've been harassing certain faculty members for years and just generally going way beyond the right of legal demonstration."

Bianco won't elaborate on the specifics of the alleged harassment. But, he speculates, the attack may have marked a long-term change in ALF tactics nationwide. "They've gone from peaceful demonstration to breaking into labs and killing animals and destroying equipment. There's definitely a positive slope to that curve."

Bianco says he became particularly concerned when he learned early this month that a campus-based group called the Student Organization for Animal Rights (SOAR) was planning a week of protest to coincide with "World Week for Animals and Labs" beginning July 28. SOAR is not affiliated with the ALF, and Bianco says there have been no specific threats from the Front. Nonetheless his memo advised University employees, "lock your doors; secure in locked cabinets or drawers all valuable information and videotapes or photos of animals being used in research. Back up computer data and store it at an off-campus site; expect staff to wear identification and question those who are not wearing it; [and] call 911 if you notice any suspicious activity."

In the fractious world of the animal rights movement (whose multifariously acronymed groups often spend as much time condemning each other as battling animal testing), the ALF has achieved a notoriety analogous to the Symbionese Liberation Army. According to Barbara Rich, a vice president with the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Biomedical Research, the ALF's primary targets until the early 1990s were academic labs like those at the University of Minnesota. After a 1992 law made such attacks a federal offense, however, the group turned to meat and fur industry sites like the Utah mink farm firebombed by a self-described ALF member in 1997. "Minnesota was a return to the kinds of protests we saw in the Eighties," Rich says. "And they kind of bragged that up through their press office."

The most visible figure in the ALF's press office at the time of the April raid was Kevin Kjonaas, a recent U of M graduate who acted as a spokesperson for the ALF--though, he explains, he was not involved in the action and is not a member of the Front itself. Kjonaas says the group is structured roughly in the manner of the Irish Republican Army, with "cells" of four or five activists working individually and without the knowledge of other members. But unlike paramilitary organizations, Kjonaas says, the ALF considers itself nonviolent: "In the history of the movement, no human or nonhuman animal has been killed. It's a very noble cause."

Though the lab raid resulted in no arrests, Kjonaas's peripheral involvement was not without consequences. In June he was called before a federal grand jury to testify about his involvement in the ALF, and his name was frequently mentioned in connection with a measure proposed by state senator Dave Kleis (R-St. Cloud) at the legislature this spring. In addition to creating tougher civil penalties for interfering with animal research and commerce, the bill would have made spokespeople liable for the actions of groups they represent; the latter portion was eventually dropped due to constitutional concerns.

Kjonaas argues that the legislation was part of a wider effort by public officials to demonize the ALF. "They try to instill fear in people by telling them that the ALF is a terrorist organization. As history's proven, it's simply not true."

The ongoing investigation of the University incident, Kjonaas claims, is also part of a government campaign to quell the ALF's activities. On May 5 FBI agents served a search warrant on his Minneapolis apartment and proceeded to examine computer files and written material. Kjonaas claims that the agents forced his roommate (who, he says, has no affiliation with the animal rights movement) to huddle in a corner in her pajamas while they read excerpts from her personal journal out loud.

"It was a very violating experience," Kjonaas says. "It was about intimidation rather than finding evidence. They were just trying to show the public that they were going somewhere with the investigation. The ALF won't be caught." (FBI spokesperson Coleen Rowley would not comment on the investigation, which, she says, is still very much open.)

Back on campus, SOAR spokeswoman Laurie Voeltz says the student group does not engage in ALF-style actions, but considers the activities critical to the cause. "Even if it doesn't slow down or stop [animal] research," explains Voeltz, "it's showing the people in those labs that it's not safe to work there and they could possibly be targeted. I see it as the same thing as approaching people who are wearing fur. If you don't say anything, they'll continue to think it's safe to continue what they're doing."

For Animals and Labs Week, SOAR has scheduled a series of on-campus protests, a miniconference, a street-theater puppet show, and a seminar on civil disobedience facilitated by members of the environmental organization Earth First! On Saturday SOAR will also screen a videotape of the April raid, showing masked ALF members smashing lab equipment with crowbars and spiriting off rodents. "I know the public sees it as violent," Voeltz says, "but I don't consider it as violent because no animals, human or nonhuman, were harmed."

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