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“I think the animal-rights movement has been way too slow in taking radical actions,” he says. “And they’ve been way too nice.”
Born and raised in Texas, Vlasak came into the movement in 1993, after his wife, former child actress Pamelyn Ferdin, who guest starred in such TV shows as Space Academy, Green Acres and The Brady Bunch, took up animal-rights issues.
Vlasak appreciated her enthusiasm and got involved. In 2004, with a handful of other activists in New York and Texas, he started the North American Animal Liberation Press Office. The Los Angeles branch office is near Canoga Avenue and Victory Boulevard in less-than-radical Woodland Hills. Its purpose: to be a liaison with the public, and to publicize the radical animal-rights underground’s activities.
Besides posting communiqués and press releases on the NAALPO Web site, Vlasak understands that his medical background gives the animal-rights movement a certain amount of cachet. Journalists come to him for quotes, and he gives them. In a 2004 interview with the London Observer, he said, “I don’t think you’d have to kill too many [researchers]. I think for five lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million nonhuman lives.” Those remarks caused him to be banished from England, but in Southern California, he practices surgery at Riverside Community and Parkview Community hospitals in Riverside County, as well as Community Hospital and San Antonio Community Hospital in San Bernardino.
Despite his brief appearance on national television last year, California media have focused surprisingly few stories on Vlasak, and he has gained a foothold here, becoming an important voice — and face — for the increasingly violent movement. He works closely with the UCLA Primate Freedom Project, which gathers medical research documents involving animal testing through the Freedom of Information Act. The organization was founded in 2001 by UCLA honors student Erica Sutherland, who has since dropped out of the animal-rights scene. At the time, though, Sutherland shared the reports with other activists, who collected and posted the names of researchers at UCLA on various Web sites.
With Vlasak advocating violence and Sutherland supplying the underground information, UCLA Medical Center faculty members were suddenly in the cross hairs. But it wasn’t until the Molotov cocktail incident on June 30, 2006, that things truly got vicious. A communiqué 11 days later from anonymous members claiming to belong to ALF declared:
“On the night of June 30, we paid a visit to Lynn Fairbanks home at .?.?. in Belaire. Since she is rumored to have a cocktail every evening after a hard days work of breeding monkeys for painful addiction experiments at UCLA we thought we would give her a cocktail of our own a moletov cocktail. We left it on her doorstep but didn’t hang around to see if it went off.”
The Molotov cocktail never exploded — and it was left on the wrong doorstep. An elderly woman, not Fairbanks, who lived a few blocks away, found the defective firebomb.
But the act of domestic terrorism brought in the FBI, who in partnership with UCLA offered a $60,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the would-be bombers. The attempted bombing of Rosenbaum’s car generated an even bigger reward offer — $110,000.
Despite the huge reward offers, spokeswoman Laura Eimiller says, “It certainly presents an obstacle when you have a group taking responsibility anonymously.”
ONE THING IS FOR SURE — the situation at UCLA, where doctors care for patients with severe eye disorders at the globally respected Jules Stein center, is getting downright creepy. “There has been an escalation of inflamed rhetoric over the years, and now there’s an escalation of violence,” says Eimiller. “We’re concerned that it’s only a matter of time someone will get hurt or killed.”
UCLA — and major facilities like it — clearly have no intention of ending animal experimentation. Acting Chancellor Norman Abrams declared in a June 28 statement, “UCLA remains steadfast in its commitment to the lawful use of laboratory animals in research for the benefit of society.” Abrams also notes that the university abides by strict federal laws and is subject to federal inspection.
Research at the Jules Stein Eye Institute has led to advances in gene therapies to treat inherited, blindness-causing diseases, and UCLA is credited with a breakthrough for curing visual loss in patients with the eye disease known as Stargardt’s. Rosenbaum and its other leading physicians who do key work on such diseases have plenty of supporters.
But some of the experiments have been gruesome. Most notably, Rosenbaum’s have involved shooting Botox into the eyes of fully conscious rhesus monkeys. In another case, when a vervet monkey was strapped in a metal cage, the terrified animal reacted by biting its tongue, banging its head, and chipping its teeth. The monkey wounded itself so badly that it had to be euthanized. On the less tragic end, mice were given shots of Accutane, a drug used to treat acne, which helped advance gene therapies for blind Stargardt’s patients.
Still, within the animal-rights underground, it is an all-or-nothing situation. UCLA has reacted by beefing up security on and off campus, even hiring private firms to watch over the homes of faculty members, according to UCLA Police Department spokeswoman Nancy Greenstein. At Dr. Arthur Rosenbaum’s home, armed security now stand guard 24 hours a day, seven days a week.