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The Vivisector’s Tale

Planting firebombs and issuing death threats, activists are waging war to stop scientists at UCLA from experimenting on animals. One researcher has chosen to push back 

Illustration by Sam Weber

"Nothing burns like a car,” David Jentsch says, almost wistfully remembering the morning of March 7, 2009, when he awoke to find his Volvo on fire in the driveway. First came the bang of the gas cap blowing off, then the vehicle’s alarm. It was 4 a.m. along a rustic stretch of Beverly Glen Boulevard above Sunset. As he stood in the damp chill, surrounded by walls of ivy and bougainvillea, Jentsch kept whispering the unthinkable: “They’ve found me.” » Jentsch (pronounced “yench”) is a psychology professor and neurobiologist at UCLA, where he conducts laboratory research on animals. Since 2006, he’d watched as animal rights militants picketed and vandalized the homes of  colleagues who work with monkeys. Until that moment, though, he hoped he'd somehow gone unnoticed by them. Just maybe, Jentsch thought, the groups would fade before turning their attention to him. He recalls his futile, vaudevillian attempts to put out the blaze with a tiny kitchen fire extinguisher. Finally he gave up and went back to his house, snapping photos of the conflagration, which had ignited a tree as he waited for the fire trucks to arrive. Because he hadn’t disclosed his current address even to the university, and because a housemate’s car parked next to the Volvo remained untouched, a second realization dawned: He’d been followed home.

Two weeks later the university posted a guard outside Jentsch’s office, a space high up in the psychology department’s Franz Hall. Today the guard is gone, replaced by video cameras that enable Jentsch to monitor the floor’s deserted hallway from his computer. His bare office walls are relieved only by a few desk photos of his two younger sisters and his dogs. Pale and a bit fleshy, he resembles a younger Ricky Gervais, one whose eyebrows give him an expression of perpetual concern: Jentsch prefers to shave them off, penciling in Garbo arches that hang dramatically above his blue eyes. It’s a distinctive look that has proved something of a propaganda windfall for antivivisectionists, whose leaflets and blogs elongate his face and describe him as “a sick, perverted, primate vivisector,” “soulless scum,” and “animal mutilator.”

Jentsch, who is 38, studies schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, and drug addiction, using a colony of 20 to 30 vervet monkeys. In the past he would inject the animals with phencyclidine, or PCP, to re-create symptoms of schizophrenia in an attempt to locate its “biological signatures” in the brain. These days he relies on them for blood samples in the hopes of identifying the genes that cause the disease; for experiments involving drug addiction, he injects them with methamphetamine. Jentsch euthanizes about four monkeys each year in order to study how the drugs have affected the animals’ brains. “Compared to 15 years ago,” he says, “the number of things we can see inside your brain without opening your skull is remarkable. But at present time there are no nonanimal alternatives to explore how the living brain works.” His discoveries showing that an addict’s actions are predetermined by inflexible and dysfunctional brain circuitry are profound because they imply the futility of punitive solutions.

UCLA, which receives about $1 billion annually in grants and contracts, ranks among the top five academic research centers in the country. Like other universities, the school was slow to perceive the threat posed to its researchers by militants—much to the anger and frustration of some scientists who considered the university unsupportive. Jentsch had, beginning in 2006, helped push the school to provide 24-hour residential guards and electronic property surveillance for researchers who’d been threatened. Animal rights militants typically warn individuals and institutions that they’ll face harassment if they don’t stop using animal subjects.

Jentsch hadn’t received any warning, however. “No Web site ever mentioned me. I never got an e-mail or phone call,” he says. “The first communication I received was the arson on my car.” Members of the campus police, fire department, Los Angeles and Santa Monica police departments, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation swarmed his home to investigate the crime, which the FBI has classified an act of domestic terrorism. The case remains open—another in more than a dozen animal rights actions aimed at UCLA in the past seven years.

“I was kind of deranged,” Jentsch says of the time following the attack. “I didn’t sleep for two days and felt incapable of functioning.” The worst part came 48 hours after the fire, when the Animal Liberation Brigade claimed responsibility for the attack and promised to return. “I didn’t know what I was going to do—pack my bags? Head for the hills?”

A week later he found himself riding in an elevator with one of his former students. It was a brief but pivotal encounter. “She just looked at me and started to cry,” Jentsch recalls. “She said, ‘I heard what happened to you, and I feel so awful and don’t know what I can do.’ It took that moment for me to realize how much pain other people were feeling—and that for this university, something had to give.”

On Earth Day 2009, little more than a month after Jentsch’s car was destroyed, about 700 scientists, students, and other supporters of animal research gathered at UCLA. The event marked the public debut of Pro-Test for Science, an organization formed by Jentsch and inspired by a similar group based in the United Kingdom. Pro-Test set out to challenge the animal rights movement’s monopoly on media attention by explaining the necessity for the humane use of test animals. Through the organization, Jentsch would also become a one-man support group for researchers around the country who’ve been harassed.

As Pro-Testers milled about with signs proclaiming Science Saved My Dad and Stop the Bombing, Tom Holder, a spokesman for Britain’s Oxford University-based Pro-Test, addressed reporters: “Today is going to be remembered as the day that scientists stood up and said, ‘No more!’…No more to the fear and harassment of researchers who do lifesaving research at UCLA and beyond.”

Jentsch, the coauthor of lab studies with such arid titles as “Clonidine and guanfacine attenuate phencyclidine-induced dopamine overflow in rat prefrontal cortex: mediating influence of the alpha-2A adrenoceptor subtype,” was suddenly dishing out sound bites like a seasoned talking head. “These kind of actions have often hit their mark,” he conceded when asked whether colleagues had been intimidated by the attacks. “But the question is, What do you do about it? Do you stay at home? Do you cower? Or do you develop a resoluteness and a commitment that’s going to counteract that?”

Across Westwood Plaza, separated by police and a traffic median, a dozen animal rights demonstrators held their own Earth Day rally, carrying signs denouncing the scientists. It was the first time the researchers had confronted their tormentors face to face.

“The little group that Jentsch has is a predictable backlash,” Jerry Vlasak tells me one blustery afternoon outside a Brentwood Coffee Bean. “They won’t last—they don’t have the motivation to keep it going.” A wiry man in his early fifties, with sunglasses resting on his head and a salt-and-pepper goatee, Vlasak serves as a spokesman for the L.A.-based North American Animal Liberation Press Office, the bulletin board for the extreme animal rights movement. The office, which professes it doesn’t advocate law breaking, is essentially a Web site that posts communiqués from individuals and clandestine animal rights groups who have committed illegal acts—often against UCLA researchers or city employees connected to Los Angeles’s Department of Animal Services.

Vlasak is a contract trauma surgeon at regional hospitals. His wife, Pamelyn Ferdin, appeared in Star Trek and Lassie when she was a child actor. A veteran activist, she’s been arrested many times during animal rights protests, once with her husband. Vlasak says that in the late 1980s he performed vivisection research at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, working on a project that tried to produce atherosclerosis in dogs. “I was totally inculcated,” he says, “with the idea that the animals didn’t mind, or that if they did mind, it wasn’t important because we were on a higher mission here.”

Two books would radicalize his thinking. Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, published in 1983, established philosophical criteria for respecting animal life and became a manifesto for the animal rights movement. Regan believed that nonhuman animals, as creatures with an inherent urge to live and thrive, were morally due the same considerations as humans. In 1987, Diet for a New America was released. Written by John Robbins, whose father cofounded Baskin-Robbins, the influential book detailed the ruinous health and environmental effects of factory farming as well as its connection with animal cruelty. 

“Some people can read these same books and not be changed,” Vlasak says, “but they changed me.”

The books had come out on the heels of a series of shocking stories about animal research. One particularly galvanizing revelation involved the University of Wisconsin’s severe sensory deprivation experiments on monkeys and the testing of eye makeup products on conscious rabbits that were later killed. A turning point came in 1981 when the newly formed People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released an undercover report, accompanied by graphic photographs shot inside a Maryland research facility. Allegations that macaque monkeys were having their sensory ganglia cut before being subjected to electric stimuli, along with evidence of filthy cages, led to animal cruelty charges being filed against the lab and its director.

The charges would ultimately be dismissed or reversed, but the story brought PETA and its brand of activism to the forefront of the animal rights movement. The group’s tactics were duplicated at other research institutions, including UCLA, where, in 1988, activists invaded an animal lab and released a video of the living conditions. Today PETA, which claims to be the world’s largest animal advocacy group, combines undercover surveillance of biomedical labs and racy shame campaigns featuring naked celebrities to push a vegan and anti-animal research agenda. Beginning in the late 1990s, a new generation, inspired by the United Kingdom’s Animal Liberation Front, started moving beyond even PETA’s militancy. They turned to homing in on individual researchers, a strategy that exists to this day.

“The vast majority of attacks against bioresearchers in the 1990s were aimed at physical plants,” says Frankie Trull, the president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, a proresearch lobby based in Washington, D.C. “In 1992, Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Protection Act in response to these attacks, and things got quiet for a few years.” Trull says the shift in strategy was partly due to the congressional act’s enhanced legal protections for research facilities, but also because the burgeoning Internet allowed activists to track down personal information and to find out who was applying for animal research grants. The Foundation for Biomedical Research, NABR’s educational counterpart, compiled figures revealing that between 1990 and 1999, 61 percent of all illegal animal rights actions were directed at universities, whereas individuals accounted for only 9 percent. Yet between 2000 and 2009, university venues accounted for a mere 12 percent of illegal actions, while the number of individuals who were singled out leaped to 47 percent. For the extreme animal rights movement, the first decade of the new millennium was proving to be a good one. Its tactics may not have slowed the pace of scientific research, but it had begun to dramatically alter the lives of those conducting the research.

Though activists protested Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's research facilities in 1986 and 1989, demonstrations there have been nonexistent for decades. And USC reports no record of antivivisectionist activity related to biomedical research on campus. UCLA, on the other hand, has been an especially inviting target because the school’s tax-funded status requires that its research records be open to public inspection.

In June 2006, a crude firebomb intended for UCLA research psychologist Lynn Fairbanks was mistakenly placed on the doorstep of an elderly neighbor but didn’t ignite. A year later Arthur Rosenbaum, a UCLA ophthalmologist, discovered a dud under his car parked in his driveway after having received bomb threats. That July his wife was sent a package containing razor blades, animal fur, and oil; an accompanying note urged her to persuade Rosenbaum to quit his research or else “what he does to the animals we will do to you.”

In October 2007, activists went to the home of Edythe London, director of UCLA’s Center for Addictive Behaviors, who uses monkeys for studies on nicotine addiction. They tossed a hammer through the window of her French door and stuck a garden hose in the hole to flood the house, causing more than $30,000 in damage. Four months later a firebomb scorched her front door. The daughter of Holocaust survivors (London was born in Rome’s Cinecittà Displaced Persons camp), she remains a favorite target of animal rights activists. One Web site describes her as “Hitler with a vagina.”

Antivivisection advocates often invoke the Holocaust and other historical atrocities to trump objections to their tactics. “It’s twisted and it’s inflammatory,” London says. “Someone figured out it’s possible to pull the heartstrings of people by linking these images of the Holocaust to the animal researchers.” Indeed, in a single conversation, Jerry Vlasak will raise comparisons between his cause and the specters of slavery, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Algeria’s war of independence, South African apartheid, and the American civil rights movement.

Scientists maintain that without the animal-based laboratory discoveries that began emerging in the late 19th century, physicians would still be inducing vomiting, bleeding, and diarrhea in patients, while outbreaks of polio, diphtheria, and malaria would be common. “Of all the ways that we as humans use animals—on farms, for food, as pets—the use of animals in science is the noblest and most justifiable,” Jentsch says. “When I eat a steak, that’s just for me—no one else benefits. But if we generate information that enhances the world, this is a use that’s for everyone.”

Activists such as Vlasak assert that the same research can be done with MRIs, computer modeling, and in vitro testing. “These are animals,” Vlasak says of monkeys, “that form social bonds, that love their children and want to live in family groups—all the things that you can say about human beings.” Others, including Ray Greek, a retired medical doctor who lives outside Santa Barbara, avoid invoking morality. They argue that when it comes to drug and disease research, there is no predictive correlation between animal subjects and human beings. “Researchers reserve a special place in hell for me because I’m attacking them on their own ground,” says Greek. Writing books and making frequent lecture circuit appearances on behalf of his cause, he oversees Americans for Medical Advancement, a small nonprofit whose mission is “to educate the scientific community, as well as the general public, of the urgent need for a move away from the ineffective animal model” in research.

Both sides claim the moral high ground, which makes compromise unlikely. Jentsch and his colleagues view the antivivisectionist physicians, veterinarians, and members of such groups as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine as a tiny, misguided minority within the scientific community. “They’re 20 guys like Dr. Ray Greek,” Jentsch says, “who stand in opposition to the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Neurology. A [Pew Research] poll last year showed that nine out of ten scientists believe in the value of research using animals and endorse it.”

Jentsch’s colleague Dario Ringach studies blindness and sight restoration at UCLA’s Department of Neurobiology. He’s been involved in an online debate with Greek. “We can’t have a reasonable discussion,” he says of animal rights advocates. “I accept that they equate the life of a mouse with that of a human child, but I don’t share that view.” In 2006, Ringach announced he was withdrawing from animal research after three years of hectoring phone calls, noisy home demonstrations, and masked activists pounding on his windows at night. He’d begun to fear for the safety of his family. “You win,” he wrote in an e-mail to several animal rights organizations. “The feeling of being left alone,” Ringach recalls, “was a big part of my decision.”

“The who in science isn’t important,” David Jentsch tells 300 students in his Principles of Behavioral Neuroscience course. “The what is.” From the back of Franz Hall’s largest lecture room, Jentsch doesn’t especially look like a man who’s sold his soul, unless you picture Doctor Faustus wearing a polo shirt, jeans, and running shoes. Most of the upper division students follow his lecture in silence as others track his projection screen graphics on their laptops. He isn’t the kind of scholar-performer who uses lectures to charm undergraduates. Jentsch speaks out against violence, he tells me, partly as an example to students who may “jump ship” early in their careers if faced with animal rights activism. The one-and-a-half-hour course, held twice a week, is his only class. He spends most of his time in the laboratory, whose location is kept a secret to prevent extremists from taking “direct action” against it.

Jentsch was born and raised in Seguin, Texas, a small agricultural town northeast of San Antonio, where church affiliations determine social circles and pop music is frowned upon. As a child, Jentsch would spend hours fossil hunting or watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. His interest in science became problematic in a high school whose vocational specialties were automobile repair, animal husbandry, and cosmetology. “They didn’t have science,” says Jentsch. At 16 Jentsch transferred to a state university; two years later he enrolled at Johns Hopkins before earning his neurobiology Ph.D. at Yale. He was granted tenure just five years after UCLA hired him in 2001. By then, Jentsch had fallen hard for the region, becoming a weekend habitué of its arboretums and art museums, now and then indulging in a new Matthew Bourne dance piece or Dame Edna appearance downtown.

His home is a former hunting cabin built in 1918 that allows him the relative luxury of walking the nearby hills with his affenpinscher and toy fox terrier. Since the Volvo went up in flames, his house has received regular visits from activists, who picket on his street chanting through a bullhorn. In one instance, protesters mistook a neighbor for Jentsch and swarmed the man’s car, yelling, “Hey, Professor Jentsch—burn in hell, fuck you!” Another time, he says, “they yelled, ‘Hey, queer boy, we’ll find you in West Hollywood and get you there.’?”

“I watch my surroundings,” Jentsch tells me matter-of-factly, as though noting the weather. “There’s a fine line between being wary and being paranoid. When I’m at home, I’m wary of people crossing the street.” Jentsch detects a double standard in liberal Los Angeles’s tolerance of these protests, some of which feature black-masked and hoodied demonstrators. “If those people were Operation Rescue,” he says, “and I were an abortion provider under attack from right-wing protesters, it would be different.”

As with antiabortion demonstrators who display posters of aborted fetuses to shock passersby, antivivisectionists tend to flaunt placards of animals that have been maimed in the name of science—shaved monkeys strapped to tiny cages that look like medieval torture devices, intentionally paralyzed dogs, and cats with electrodes in their eyes. They’re potent images in a publicity war that until recently was dominated by animal rights activists. Jentsch asserts that many of the photographs are decades old, shown out of context, or have been Photoshopped for extra effect. “I’ve never put a monkey in a restraint chair once in my life,” he says. “Our monkeys live socially in big cages, they’re in a place where they can see the sun, and they have fresh air.” Because of security concerns, UCLA has been reluctant to allow the media into its laboratories, but he has been trying to persuade the university to grant press access to them.

For all his academic and research triumphs, Jentsch can never escape the unsettling emotions of a man who is both a devoted pet owner and a scientist who experiments on animals: “I tell people who work in my lab that you should be conflicted, you should have sensitivities about this work. If not, you shouldn’t be doing it.” But activist propaganda that depicts research facilities as part of a national scientific gulag of animal torture chambers is powerful. (The Pew Research poll cited by Jentsch, in which 93 percent of scientists questioned say they supported animal testing, also indicated that public support for the same is only 52 percent.) He partly blames the message’s success on the scientific establishment’s just-trust-us attitude. “There are very few careers that society invests so heavily in as scientific research,” he says. “Because of that we have an obligation to explain what we’re doing and why.”

He will not, however, discuss or debate his research with opponents who won’t renounce violence. Jentsch refuses to even be in the same room with Jerry Vlasak, who in 2003 was famously quoted on the topic of researcher assassination: “I think for 5 lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million nonhuman lives.” Vlasak has been explaining that comment ever since.

“I’m not saying it would necessarily be the best strategy in the world, although it might be,” Vlasak says. “I don’t know. That doesn’t mean I’m instructing someone to go out and do it.”

*****

On April 8, about 300 Pro-Test for Science demonstrators gathered under a hot sun outside UCLA’s main entrance, then marched up Westwood Plaza to Wilson Plaza, a vast lawn near the center of campus. They were fired up, striding past the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center with its squad of uniformed parking valets, past the Brain Research Institute and other medical research buildings, and past the student union tables of brunching students.

Science Not Violence, read a typical sign. Another announced PETA-philes Hurt Patients.

Sustaining Pro-Test for a year was no small triumph for Jentsch and his group. “The leadership David has shown is wonderful for the scientific community,” Edythe London told me later. “It’s important for the public to know how misinformed these people are…and how these crazy claims can distort what animal research is about.”

Still, the crowd was less than half of 2009’s turnout and seemed to be drawn solely from UCLA’s science departments—the students they passed barely glanced up at them. More important, there were none of the news crews that had followed last year’s event. Just as the group was forming outside Westwood Plaza, a UCLA media spokeswoman spotted a KABC news van parked on Le Conte Avenue. “Maybe they’re here for the rally,” she said before the van drove away. The march ended in front of Kaufman Hall, a Romanesque building adorned with centaurs and peacocks. “I thought I could make people’s lives better because of my work,” Jentsch told the crowd as he stood at a microphone on Kaufman’s steps. “And I consider it unethical to abandon the mission that we’ve taken up here today. Because of that, I’m absolutely determined to fight with each and every one of you until the end.”

Perhaps the court injunction that UCLA had won against antivivisection leaders had kept them home. “The strong showing by UCLA [authorities] has made the activists less confrontational,” Tom Holder told me at the rally. “But that’s not to say they’ve gone away.”

The day after the event a tall 62-year-old woman with long hair and dark-framed glasses sat in Department 102 of downtown’s dreary Criminal Courts Building, awaiting her plea-bargained sentence. It was morning, and the room was nearly empty. Until her arrest last year, Lindy Greene had been a spokesperson for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office. Unlike Jerry Vlasak, however, she had also engaged in street activism—the district attorney charged her with stalking and threatening UCLA professor Lynn Fairbanks along with an executive of the POM Wonderful juice company, which tested its drinks on monkeys.

Judge David Wesley's affable courtroom demeanor is well known on Temple Street, but he spoke sternly to Greene, whose codefendant, Kevin Olliff, would be sentenced in June. After he barred Greene from associating with Vlasak, Ferdin, and other activists during a five-year probation, as well as from engaging UCLA researchers, the judge offered some advice: “Be careful of what you do or you’ll be right back here. You stay away from any animal rights groups,” Wesley added. “Good luck to you, Miss Greene.”

*****

“David Jentsch—you cocksucking bastard!”
“David Jentsch—you sick pervert, I hope you die!”

On a bright April afternoon the cries reverberate through part of Beverly Glen Canyon when, elsewhere in the flatlands of Los Angeles, the Armenian genocide is being commemorated. Twenty picketers march along the woodsy bend of Beverly Glen where Jentsch lives. Holding posters depicting surgically disfigured monkeys, the demonstrators are protesting what they believe to be another genocide during World Week for Animals in Laboratories.

As cars speed around the curve near Jentsch’s gravel driveway, a low singsong chant builds to a primal howl:

Da-vid Jentsch has blood on his hands!
Da-vid Jentsch has blood on his hands!

The protesters are mostly young, their appearances ranging from Burning Man to Banana Republic. They carry aloft a giant stuffed monkey (a veteran of many antivivisection marches), crucified and sporting an exposed brain with a probe jammed into it. The monkey lends a passion-play tone to what’s become a monthly drama here and at other researchers’ homes. The chants are loud enough a cappella, but a bullhorn amplifies the group’s anger into a piercing canyon echo.

“Are you guys getting sick of us being in your neighborhood?” a woman shouts to unseen residents through the horn. The crowd runs through a list of chants as some of the passing motorists honk in support:

Stop the torture, stop the pain!
David Jentsch is to blame!
There’s no excuse for animal abuse!

Pamelyn Ferdin, Vlasak’s wife, trots up and down the line shooting video. A waifish figure with curly auburn hair tucked under a Day-Glo-lime National Lawyers Guild observer cap, she’s documenting that demonstrators have abided by the law. They cannot stop within 100 feet of a private residence, according to Los Angeles’s Municipal Code, and there are chalk boundaries on Beverly Glen Boulevard marking the 100-foot borders on either side of Jentsch’s home. One hundred and one feet away, a private security guard stands in Jentsch’s driveway, where three surveillance cameras monitor the area. Across the street half a dozen LAPD and UCLA police officers chat next to three cruisers. The demonstrators had tried to keep their plans secret, but the cops have been tailing them all day as they move from one researcher’s house to the next, exclaiming “Your neighbor makes a living killing primates!”

We will never back down! We will never compromise! We will never go away!

This last cry is the one Jentsch finds the most chilling. “I feel very jealous that other people can live a normal life, and I can’t,” he says. “I’m a very patient man, but I certainly have a threshold and will consider relocation if my gut tells me things won’t ever get better.”

A protestor in his early twenties says that, given the chance, he would engage Jentsch in a conversation about the research he does. “I’d tell him, ‘Quit injecting animals with drugs and treating them like shit,’?” he says.

“These primates aren’t just biology, they have biographies,” Ferdin tells me. “They hold each other in their cages. You can’t be injecting primates with PCP and methamphetamines, tying them down, killing them while they scream and cry. You can’t be doing that and go home, put your feet up on the couch, and drink your martini and watch television.”

The protest begins winding down after about 40 minutes, instead of the hour or two that demonstrators have previously spent here. Maybe they sense Jentsch isn’t home: At that very moment he is at the Anaheim Convention Center, warning other scientists about the dangers of militant antivivisectionists. Besides, they have Edythe London’s home to picket.

As Ferdin surveys the street, she turns to me and asks, “Wasn’t Jentsch’s car burned or something?” Then, above the din of chants, she adds, “I don’t know how to put this—I only wish he were in it.”       

Steven Mikulan is a Los Angeles writer who has covered theater, politics, and crime for the L.A. Weekly and TheWrap.com. This is his first story for Los Angeles magazine.