Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty - SHAC's success energizes extreme activists' resolve

SHAC's whatever-it-takes tactics have not only impacted its target - Huntingdon Life Sciences; they've put extreme activism squarely on everyone's radar.

SHAC's whatever-it-takes tactics have not only impacted its target - Huntingdon Life Sciences; they've put extreme activism squarely on everyone's radar.

Have you heard of the SHAC 7? They're not a basketball team, but they are the slam dunk of PR nightmares. And they're out to shut down New Jersey-based Huntingdon Life Sciences. Huntingdon is the kind of company you'd expect social activists like SHAC (which stands for Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) to target. The UK-based firm, with a US division in New Jersey, conducts animal testing for pharmaceuticals and other products. While experiments are done mostly on rats, the company also uses dogs and monkeys. In 1999, a BBC cameraman snuck into a UK facility and videotaped a Huntingdon employee repeatedly punching a beagle in the nose. It would not be shocking, then, to see protesters in front of its offices, chanting and waving in an effort to stop such uses of animals. But would you expect to see those protesters in employee's front yards? Or targeting the banks and insurance companies Huntingdon works with? Or posting executives' names and home addresses on the web? Taking activism to the next level As the public and media become more immune to the PR tactics of animal-rights activists, some radical groups are going to even greater extremes to make sure they're heard. Their tactics cause the targeted companies to shift into high gear when it comes to their media, internal, and crisis communications. Huntingdon's move to the US could have curtailed SHAC's effectiveness, but the group simply crossed the pond in pursuit. It has made its mission to ruin Huntingdon. By any means necessary. Since SHAC began its efforts, it has waged an ultra-aggressive effort that included showing up at the home of employees and posting an interactive map online with the names, residential addresses, and phone numbers of anyone associated with Huntingdon - from suppliers to subcontractors. Last month, seven members of the group (the SHAC 7) were indicted in New Jersey on the unusual charge of "animal enterprise terrorism." But the loosely affiliated national effort isn't backing down from its mission. SHAC and other sympathetic groups have targeted companies that do businesses with Huntingdon, or in some cases have only tenuous ties to them. They include New York-based insurance company Marsh and California-based entities Presidio Venture Partners and Chiron, a biotech company, among others. At Marsh, the activists went so far as to post the names, ages, and schools of Marsh staffers' children, according to media reports. In separate incidents, protesters in skull masks took over the front yard of a Presidio employee and painted "puppy killer" and "you can't hide" on his house. Presidio is a subsidiary of Sumitomo of America, whose parent company is part of a larger holding company that may have ties to Huntingdon. Chiron, which doesn't do business with Huntingdon, according to media relations manager John Gallagher, has seen similar tactics. It even weathered two pipe bomb attacks last fall. While SHAC and Huntingdon agree on very little, the fact that more such protests are coming is one area where they do concur. Groups with causes far different from animal rights are starting to see home demonstrations and internet campaigns as the next logical place to go. "I think activists view this as the next necessary step," says Kevin Jonas, a spokesman for SHAC in the US and one of the seven arrested. "Because so many of these targeted corporations are multinational, there is no public scrutiny. This sort of activity allows demonstrators to continue to put on public and personal scrutiny in an effective way. Many social-justice organizations have come asking questions about these tactics simply because these tactics work." For example, one each of Huntingdon's bank and insurance companies has stopped doing business with it. Mike Caulfield, Huntingdon's GM of US operations, says his industry isn't the only one that should worry. If SHAC's success continues, others will follow. "They must understand that these tactics are being watched by activists around the world and it is the end of the wedge," says Caulfield. "If you capitulate and give them what they want, it emboldens them to further, more aggressive measures." In fact, groups like Earth First have begun incorporating activities like home demonstrations into their efforts, says Shunka Walkan, North Coast Earth First activist and organizer. While he personally has never attended a home demonstration, Walkan says the tactic is used by some branches of Earth First in their fight against companies with ties to logging. Activists "are going to the people's houses so they can't feel like they can go and do whatever they want by day, go back to their nice palace at night, and feel like nothing is wrong," Walkan says. The tactics do not endear their users to either media or the general public, but Jonas says popularity isn't the point. Keeping the pressure on and creating enough stress to force change is. "The anxiety these people claim to feel really pales in comparison to the suffering you find in the lab," he says. "To close down Huntingdon definitely is the goal. And with its close, it will spell trouble for all research." Impact on protest targets In the US - unlike in the UK - SHAC's tactics coaxed Huntingdon to be more open with the press. "One of the things Huntingdon did that was very successful - and this was quite novel - was they employed essentially an open-door policy" towards the press, explains Caulfield. Rather than "thinking that the general public was not savvy enough to understand these concepts, they invited the media in to discuss it and undertook dozens of on- and off-camera interviews. They didn't shy away from any requests and opportunities to get our side of the story out." For those targeted, pressure is often experienced most by employees, who can feel terrorized and victimized by protesters. Kathleen Larnder, the wife of the Sumitomo employee whose home was vandalized recently, told the Los Angeles Times that the experience has been "weeks of anxiety and absolute fear" for her family. Helping employees through that kind of situation has become a priority at both Huntingdon and Chiron. Sumitomo executives declined to be interviewed for this article, saying through a spokesman only that they are "supporting our employees as best we can in difficult circumstances." Huntingdon has gone so far as to hire security for workers and to counsel them on how to best protect their trash from activists looking for personal information. "We started by being open with our staff about the true nature of the campaign, including the uncertainties," says Caulfield. "We reiterated our view to our employees that what we are doing is to save lives," he says, referring to the drug developments that can come out of animal testing. "We were pretty proactive in getting this information out to our staff." Chiron also did outreach to employees, even printing an internal emergency-announcement phone number on refrigerator magnets after the pipe bombings last year to give employees a quick resource in case the worst happened again. "It's the point when your crisis communications plan becomes real and not theoretical," says Gallagher. And despite SHAC's apparent successes against Huntingdon, most companies haven't caved to demands. At Chiron, Gallagher says, "We haven't changed anything. In our case, what we said was we're not conducting research with Huntingdon. That wasn't a policy change. It was just a statement of fact." Caulfield gives a similar assessment. "I guess it was effective initially," he says. "It has caused us to work a bit harder than our competitors to maintain the level of profitability." But, he adds, "there is no hope at all" SHAC will succeed in shutting the company down. "We have been profitable for six or seven successive quarters. Our revenues are growing at double digits. The numbers speak for themselves."

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