Scene of the attack. Police suspect animal-rights extremists are behind the destruction of a UCSC researcher's car early Saturday morning.

Shmuel Thaler/Santa Cruz Sentinel

Scientists Targeted in California Firebombings

Early Saturday morning, a Molotov-cocktail-like device set fire to the home of a developmental neurobiologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). His family escaped by climbing down a fire escape from a second-story window. Around the same time, a similar device destroyed the car of another UCSC researcher. As ScienceNOW went to press, no one had claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the university and police suspect they are the work of animal-rights extremists.

In recent years, universities and law enforcement officials in the United States have had to grapple with increasingly personal threats, harassment, and attacks on animal researchers and their families (Science, 21 December 2007, p. 1856). California has been an epicenter of such animal-rights extremism: Several biomedical researchers at UC Los Angeles have been targeted in recent years, and more recently, scientists at other University of California (UC) campuses have endured harassment and had their homes vandalized. Twenty-four UC Berkeley researchers and seven staff members have been harassed in recent months, according to a university spokesperson. In February, six masked intruders tried to force their way into the home of a UCSC researcher during a birthday party for her young daughter.

Concerns were sparked again last week in Santa Cruz by pamphlets discovered in a downtown coffee shop and turned in to police. Titled "Murderers and Torturers Alive and Well in Santa Cruz," they contained the photographs, home addresses, and phone numbers of 13 UCSC faculty members, along with "threat-laden language" condemning animal research, says Captain Steve Clark of the Santa Cruz police.

David Feldheim, the neurobiologist whose house sustained substantial damage in the fire attack, was one of those listed. Feldheim uses mice in studies of how the brain's visual system develops. The researcher whose car was destroyed was not on the list, Clark says. UCSC spokesperson Jim Burns declined to name that researcher or say whether he or she uses animals for research. A third researcher, who was named in the pamphlet, lives "almost next door," Clark says, raising the possibility that the culprits missed their intended target.

On Saturday, UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal issued a statement condemning the attacks as "criminal acts of anti-science violence." Burns says the university is working with Santa Cruz police and taking other steps to help ensure the safety of its researchers, including all of those listed on the pamphlets. He declined to comment on specific security measures.

As of today, Clark says, the Santa Cruz police are handing over the investigation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which will investigate the incidents as acts of domestic terrorism. "We have some good leads and some helpful witnesses," Clark says, but so far no suspects.