The early history of animal rights extremism

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The origins of the modern UK animal rights extremism go back to the formation of the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) in 1962. The HSA was committed to non-violence, but in the early 1970s a small group of 'sabbers' decided that 'something more had to be done for animals'. It included trainee solicitor Ronnie Lee, later founder of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), who was to spend more than six years in jail for his part in a firebombing campaign of 1985-1986.

Band of Mercy

The breakaway group founded the Band of Mercy, forerunner of the ALF, named after the Victorian youth wing of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (founded in 1840). ALF was one of an estimated 600 animal rights groups established in the 1970s and 1980s.The Band's attack on the Hoechst pharmaceutical laboratories - ironically a manufacturer of animal vaccines - in December 1973 was the beginning of animal rights extremism in the UK. It marked two historic 'firsts': the first use of arson as a tactic by animal rights activists and the first attack on an animal research laboratory. Two years later Lee and fellow Band member Cliff Goodman became the first animal rights activists to be jailed. Lee had been arrested after returning to the scene of another fire.

This was the first of several thousand incidents, including threatening letters and telephone calls; graffiti and other criminal damage; disruption of research, theft of research records; petrol bombing of vehicles and buildings; letter bombs and the planting of high-explosive bombs. The first act of 'animal liberation' took place during the same period when activists removed half a dozen guinea pigs from a guinea pig farm in Wiltshire, England, which resulted in the owner closing her business.

Animal Liberation Front

Lee emerged from prison even more militant. Supported by 30 activists, he reformed the Band of Mercy as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The ALF evolved into a disparate group of activists who shared the same targets, used the same tactics and adopted various  non-deplumes.

ALF started by stealing laboratory animals from farms, circuses and other establishments, before making a dramatic change in its tactics - carrying out hundreds of incendiary attacks, including the use of small incendiary devices to attack department stores.

It targeted prominent individual scientists. For example, in January 1985, two Molotov cocktails were lobbed at the home of Nobel Prize  winner Sir John Vane, then director of research development at the Wellcome Foundation. His garage was set alight, but fortunately the fire did not get out of hand.

The most serious incidents included high explosive bombs at Bristol  University and against two veterinary researchers in Salisbury and Bristol in 1989-1990. One or two scientists, such as Professor Colin Blakemore, and their families faced repeated attacks and threats. An  anonymous ALF spokesperson told the Press Association that every  'vivisector' in Britain 'would be liable to petrol bomb attacks on their homes'.

The author David Henshaw* noted: 'The pressure that the liberationists were able to bring to bear on not just those individuals,  but the authorities where they worked, was often greater than they probably realised. Several scientists talked about their shameless betrayal by government bodies who reneged on research projects out of a combination of embarrassment over lurid publicity and outward cowardice in the face of bomb threats.'

In January 1987, Ronnie Lee was found guilty at Sheffield Crown Court of conspiracy to commit arson, commit criminal damage and incite others to commit criminal damage and was jailed for 10 years. Lee continued to lead the ALF from the confines of his cell - he even produced in prison an antivivisectionist magazine, Arkangel, and collaborated with activists at home and abroad.

* Henshaw D (1989)Animal Warfare: The Story of the Animal Liberation Frontp146 Fontana, Collins

Hunger strikes

Barry Horne, dustman turned ALF fire-bomber, made an even bigger impression behind bars. In 1997 he was sentenced to 18 years, the longest sentence imposed on any UK animal rights protestor, for fire-bombing shopping centres in Bristol and the Isle of Wight.

His hunger strike demand during the dying days of John Major's Conservative government in January 1997 was that the government must pledge to withdraw its support and funding for vivisection within five years. Later that year he went on hunger strike again but switched to the lesser demand that the Labour Government should honour its pre-election pledge to support a Royal Commission on animal research. After a further two hunger strikes, for 68 days in 1998 and for about two weeks in 2001, Horne died from liver failure and was hailed as a martyr by animal rights extremists.

The almost inevitable result of these repeated hunger strikes - as expected - was a huge rise in animal rights activity in his name. For example, using a tactic associated with peace campaigners, 60 activists set up a 'permanent' camp in support of Horne directly opposite the main gates of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) main complex near Huntingdon. Staff faced protestors whenever they arrived or left the site. HLS, the largest contract research company in Europe using animals, has been one of the main activist targets in recent years.

The last decade

In a deliberate change of tactics, in the last decade extremists targeted mostly small companies, often singling out suppliers, customers, employees and their families for persistent intimidation and harassment. These 'secondary' and 'tertiary' targets were chosen because of their inability or unwillingness to defend themselves, resulting in capitulation to extremist demands and increased pressure on the primary target.

Outside the UK

Few countries have as long a history of animal rights activism and extremism as the UK. You can read about the history of animal rights groups in Germany, France, Italy and Spain in our website here:

In 1990 an ALF raid stole animals from a London laboratory(PA PHOTOS) RIGHTA camp in support of hunger striker Bary Horne in the late 1990s(PETERBOROUGH EVENING NEWS)

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