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Animal rights extremists step up pressure

Police say they are well aware of the situation but it's impossible to protect every potential target

(Keystone)

The firebombing of a home belonging to Novartis's chairman and the desecration of his mother's grave has shocked Switzerland.

According to Geneva University scientist Denis Duboule, a greater public acceptance of animal testing has paradoxically forced extremists to raise their levels of violence in order to be heard.

The Tyrolean holiday home of Novartis chairman and CEO Daniel Vasella was badly damaged by fire early on Monday, a week after his mother's grave was desecrated by animal rights militants.

The urn with her ashes was taken and the gravestone defiled with a message saying the Basel pharmaceutical company must sever its ties with Britain's Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), the largest contract animal-testing company in Europe.

On Thursday Swiss police said vandals had last week sprayed a second gravestone of the Vasella family with the slogan "Drop HLS Now" and stuck two wooden crosses in the ground. A police spokesman declined to confirm media reports that the crosses carried the names of Vasella and his wife.

The recent attacks bear the hallmark of British extremists Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), which in recent months has reportedly targeted Novartis in France, setting fire to a company sports centre and cars.

"We can't make a clear connection with SHAC right now, but it would fit into a pattern we have seen before," Jürg Bühler, director of the federal Directorate for Analysis and Prevention - part of the defence and civil protection ministry - told swissinfo.ch.

In a statement sent to swissinfo.ch on Tuesday evening, SHAC denied any involvement but said it had "thousands" of supporters around the world who "support our goals". It added that its campaign against Novartis would "continue until they stop using HLS".

Graffiti slogans against Novartis and Vasella were also written on the church in Vasella's village of Risch in central Switzerland about three weeks ago, the company said.

Swiss security services say they have noticed increases in animal rights violence for some time. According to the Swiss Federal Police Office, in 2007 a sixth of cases involving violent extremism involved animal rights activists.

Terrorism?

Bühler explained that the concept of animal rights activism has existed in Switzerland for many years, with incidents dating back to the 1990s, "but without the same impact or structure".

"The Animal Liberation Front were freeing animals such as rabbits from farmers. Of course they did some damage to property, but this didn't have the nature of organised violent extremism," he said.

"It wasn't until the mid-2000s that it became more organised in Switzerland and we had the first activities of SHAC, which came from Britain."

Is this terrorism? "Not according to the Swiss definitions of terrorism and violent extremism. Terrorism is basically directed against the state and society – to turn over the whole system. Violent extremism is dealing with special issues and special interests – they sometimes use the same methods as terrorists but they have other goals."

Bühler said they had seen more activity since the spring, especially against Novartis, but added that it was very difficult to identify potential targets – "especially if you have very limited resources to follow these groups, as we have in Switzerland".

Public acceptance

Denis Duboule, a world-renowned specialist in developmental genetics and a professor at Geneva University, didn't think scientists were coming under more pressure from activists.

"In fact it's the opposite: scientists have worked very hard over the past 15 years to improve working conditions, laws and respect for animal experimentation. This is of course a result of pressure from these [animal rights] associations but also from the scientific side," he told swissinfo.ch.

"As a result I think there is quite a large support among the public for scientists using animals as long as they do it for biomedical purposes and of course follow strict regulations."

The problem, in his view, is that because of this general acceptance, activists still pushing for the total abrogation of animal experimentation have had to become increasingly conspicuous – "and this is why we're starting to see these quite isolated but very visible actions".

Swiss animal organisations have reacted in different ways.

The Swiss Animal Protection and the Vier Pfoten (Four Paws) organisations condemned the attacks, described by the latter as "counterproductive". However, Erwin Kessler from the Association against Animal Factories said: "I have nothing to do with this and as a result have nothing to say."

Wave of attacks?

Bühler says it's hard to say whether the recent attacks on Novartis are the beginning of a wave of violent extremism.

"There could be a calming effect because of the bad public reaction – stealing the ashes of a dead person is very much rejected. And also in the media there's not a lot of understanding for an action like this," he said.

"But it could also have the contrary effect: the activists might say 'now we have a lot of attention and we have to continue with the struggle because ultimately we're defending a good cause' – because they're completely convinced they're right."

The police and the targeted companies' security forces are well aware of the situation, he said, but ultimately it's impossible to protect every single potential target.

"The most important thing right now is that the criminal investigation authorities manage to identify the authors of these crimes and have them sentenced."

Key facts

550,505 animals were used in Swiss scientific experiments in 2005. This was a rise of 10.6% over the previous year, mainly due to the increased use of genetically modified mice.
The number of authorisations granted was 2,414, the same number as in 2004.
408 primates were involved in experiments.
There is no animal testing for cosmetic products in Switzerland.

end of infobox

In brief

The Swiss Committee on Animal Experiments is appointed by the government to advise the Federal Veterinary Office on anything to do with animal experiments. It also advises cantons on animal-testing principles and intervenes in disputes.

The Swiss Ethics Committee on Non-human Biotechnology advises the government and authorities on legislation and enforcement from an ethical point of view. It can also independently address topics of ethical relevance and submit recommendations on future legislation to the government.

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Animal dignity and experimentation

According to the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences and the Swiss Academy of Sciences, researchers must demonstrate the need for all experiments on animals and to verify their justifiability through ethical balancing.

This balancing is the responsibility of the individual researcher and must be justified to the various authorising bodies and the general public.

Furthermore, animals have the right to the respect of their dignity and the respect of their characteristics, needs and behaviours.

Any experiment that causes pain or stress to the animal represents an attack on the dignity of the animal and must, therefore, be justified through the balancing of the ethical concerns involved.

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