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UCLA researcher: I won't be bullied by threats from animal rights activists

November 24, 2010 |  6:21 pm

When UCLA neuroscientist David Jentsch was a grad student, he never expected his life as an academic would require around-the-clock armed guards, or a closed-circuit TV inside his bedroom so he could keep constant watch over his home.

But the high-powered security proved necessary again this month when the researcher, who experiments on monkeys, opened a letter left in his mailbox to discover razor blades and a death threat.
“We follow you on campus,” Jentsch recalled the note reading. “One day, when you’re walking by, we’ll come up behind you, and cut your throat.”

Activists claimed the razors were tainted with the virus that causes AIDS, though it hasn’t been confirmed by officials. University officials have said the latest threat, confirmed by UCLA on Tuesday, is under investigation by the FBI and UCLA police.

But the 38-year-old professor has been through this before. Last year, he woke up to an orange flash and a car alarm. He ran outside to find his car had been blown up.

Twice a month, animal rights activists in ski masks post up outside his home, chanting “murder.” Last Halloween, neighborhood trick-or-treaters were handed flyers with images of bloodied animal subjects.
“If you go to the house down the street, there’s a monster who lives there,” children were told.

The tactics, Jentsch said in an interview at his office, are part of an intensifying effort by extremists to halt animal research at the university. Molotov cocktail-like devices have been left near researchers’ homes and under their cars, and in one case, a professor’s window was smashed and a garden hose inserted to flood her home.

Some of Jentsch’s colleagues have opted to alter their research, or move, but the neuroscientist says the latest incident has motivated him to press on.

“They’re absolutely determined. This is not a joke to them,” he said. “But this is the work I feel morally obligated to do.”

Since his car was torched, Jentsch has become the face of animal research at UCLA, founding an organization to voice support for humane animal research, and organizing a public rally for the cause.

His tenacity comes with its drawbacks. He has to vary his routes to work and switch up his parking spots. When he has dinner parties, he has to remind his guests that they’ll be checked in at the gate by security guards with guns. After moving into his new home, he made the rounds with his new neighbors, informing them of his work, and warning them of the protests that would inevitably follow him to the neighborhood.

He keeps the door outside his office pod locked. During a recent morning, the sound of footsteps in the hall brought Jentsch to his feet. “Who’s there?” he shouted as he turned the corner, his demeanor softening once he discovered it was just one of his students waiting outside.

Jentsch uses vervet monkeys in his research on methamphetamine addiction and tobacco dependence in teens, along with cognitive disabilities affecting schizophrenia patients. University officials say their animal research is subject to strict oversight, but the work has come under fire by animal rights activists, who say it amounts to abuse.

Some of Jentsch’s work has included administering methamphetamine to monkeys and then withdrawing them from the drug, a project that includes killing about half a dozen of the primates each year for postmortems.


Professor stands up to animal rights protesters.

--Robert Faturechi at UCLA