Late last month, hundreds of people in two Washington, D.C., suburbs received a letter in the mail claiming that one of their neighbors was tied to animal abuse at a government lab. Science has learned that the letters, sent by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), targeted U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins and NIH researcher Stephen Suomi, revealing their home addresses and phone numbers and urging their neighbors to call and visit them. The tactic is the latest attempt by the animal rights group to shut down monkey behavioral experiments at Suomi’s Poolesville, Maryland, laboratory, and critics say it crosses the line.
“It’s irresponsible and dangerous,” says Tom Holder, the director of Speaking of Research, a U.K.-based organization that supports the use of animals in scientific labs. Disseminating this type of information in the past, he says, has spurred animal rights extremists to vandalize homes and even threaten scientists’ lives. “When you start connecting addresses and giving it to unknown audiences, you’re putting someone at risk.”
PETA first began targeting Suomi’s lab in 2014. His team studies how early environment shapes behavior, work that involves separating young monkeys from their mothers, measuring their addiction to alcohol, and monitoring their long-term stress levels. PETA claims the experiments are inhumane. In the fall of last year, it ran more than 250 ads in D.C.-area transit stations and newspapers accusing NIH of wasting taxpayer money to traumatize “baby monkeys by tearing them away from their mothers at birth, scaring them with loud noises and fake snakes, and addicting them to alcohol.” In December, four members of Congress asked NIH to investigate the lab. A month later, Collins said his agency had looked into the allegations and found no major issues.
So PETA took things to the next level. “I am writing to share some disturbing information about one of your neighbors,” the letters begin. They go on to describe Suomi’s work as “cruel psychological experiments,” equating them with torture and child abuse. PETA sent the letters (including this one targeting Collins, but with the redacted information visible) to everyone within a 2- to 3-kilometer radius of Collins’s and Suomi’s homes, says author Alka Chandna, the group’s senior laboratory oversight specialist. “If I had a neighbor who was doing this, I would want to know about it,” she says. “It’s similar to having a sexual predator in your neighborhood.”
The strategy is a dangerous escalation in PETA’s tactics, says David Jentsch, a neuroscientist at the State University of New York at Binghamton whose work on substance abuse using vervet monkeys has made him the target of animal rights extremists. After activists posted his home address on the Internet in 2009, he says, “I got a letter in the mail with a bunch of razor blades stating how I would be killed.” Shortly thereafter, he says, animal rights activists began regularly marching through his neighborhood and harassing his neighbors. “It was pure, unadulterated rage and hate.” Jentsch eventually moved and hired security guards, but he has continued his research and has become a vocal proponent for the use of lab animals.
Chandna says that PETA is only sharing information that anyone could find with a bit of Web sleuthing. “We’re just saying what’s already out there,” she says. “We’re providing a public service.”
“Those are the same excuses animal rights activists used when they posted my information on the Web,” Jentsch says. “If you want to have a debate about animal research, it should be done in the public zone,” he says. “Instead, they’re taking it to people’s homes. That’s out of bounds.”
Jentsch believes this tactic shows that PETA’s past strategies haven’t resonated with the public. “PETA’s arguments about the value of the science fails on its merits, so they resort to these deeply personal attacks. We’re seeing more of these types of tactics across the animal rights movement. They’re essentially saying to scientists, ‘We know where you live.’”
Holder says Collins and Suomi should stand firm. (Collins declined to comment for this story, and Suomi did not respond to requests for comment.) “I hope they won’t bow to this pressure,” he says. “They need to stand up for the biomedical community and this important research.”