Animal rights group targets U researchers

Domestic violence hearings rarely draw a crowd, but when U researcher Audie Leventhal was in court yesterday a handful of protestors picketed.

Leventhal, who was in court on domestic abuse charges, is one among four U researchers who have been targeted by the group Utah Primate Freedom for their “horrendous” experiments on primates. Leventhal, who plead not guilty to the domestic abuse charge, could not be reached for comment on this article.

Demonstrators decked in black carried signs outside the court building stating, “Audie Leventhal abuses alcohol, animals and his wife.”

The organization alleges that a group of U researchers who they refer to as the “filthy four” are conducting horrible acts in the name of science that will one day be likened to Nazi war crimes and slavery. They claim that the research has yielded no cures and has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of primates.

The dispute between the small animal rights group and the U administration has been going on since 2003 when the group’s leader Jeremy Beckham took the U to court and won after they refused to release records regarding the storage and use of primates on campus.

But, U spokeswoman Coralie Alder said the group’s protest methods have since gotten out of hand after they began demonstrating outside the homes of U researchers last year.

“They’re now invading (researchers) personal lives and that’s crossing the line a little,” Alder said in a statement. “The protestors certainly have a right to express their opinions in a proper forum, but going to private homes is unreasonable.”

Members of Utah Primate Freedom staged four separate protests outside the homes of U researchers in the month of October alone, generally late at night.

Photos of the protests from the group’s website, utahprimatefreedom.com, show demonstrators, many of whom are dressed in black sweats and ski masks, on the sidewalk in front of several homes holding banners that read “Your neighbor tortures animals at the U.”

For Alessandra Angelucci, a member of the group’s “filthy four,” the protests have been an annoyance, but not a deterrent to her research, which Angelucci said may lead to a cure for blindness. While Angelucci said she respects the right of the demonstrators, she thinks the activists’ methods are extreme.

“They are portraying themselves as a terrorist group,” Angelucci said.

While the dark masks and late night residential protests may seem radical, Beckham said his group has broken no laws and is justified in its approach.

“I think (protesting at homes) sends a message that individuals are morally responsible for what they do at work,” Beckman said.

He said some members of the group, excluding himself, wear black at the protests to conceal their identity because they are either U employees or do not want to be sued in civil court.

U researchers have also accused the group of making harassing phone calls. Beckham said he has not condoned any phone calls.

The group objects to both the experimental procedures that are performed on primates and the environment of the laboratories in which they live. One such experiment, Beckham said, involves drilling holes into a monkey’s skull and then strapping the animal to a chair in front a screen displaying light patterns to test the brain’s responses.

Angelucci said the way Beckman has portrayed the research is both exaggerated and inaccurate, but said she was under instruction to not discuss her research in detail with the press.

“These guys know nothing about our research,” she said.

Beckman, a junior history major, said while he may not know the specifics of primate brain chemistry, he knows many doctors who oppose the animal research because it has not yielded significant findings. He said their findings will likely never be used outside professional journals.

Jack Taylor, director of the U Office of Comparative Medicine, said the type of primate research conducted at the U is common at most universities and is a relatively small program.

He said that the animals are given pain anesthetics before any surgical procedures are performed and if necessary are killed using euthanasia.

Records provided on Utah Primate Freedom’s website show that 51 primates, primarily baboons macaques, and marmosets, were bought by the U between 1998 and 2003. Beckman said he filed additional records requests asking for updated information about the U’s primate population in November and is yet to receive a response from the U.