The U.S. Congress has passed a measure that is expected to make it much easier to prosecute animal-rights activists who target enterprises that deal with animals. Research groups immediately hailed the measure, called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, as a milestone in protecting science, while animal activists warned that it labels peaceful demonstrators as terrorists.
The House of Representatives approved the act yesterday by a voice vote, following similar action by the Senate in September. The bill tightens provisions in the existing Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992, which made it a federal offense to interfere with the conduct of "animal enterprises" from university labs to slaughterhouses to circuses. The new measure extends that protection to anyone targeted by activists because they do business with an animal enterprise, including accountants and suppliers. It also calls for reimbursement for economic damages caused to such entities. Offenders will face fines or jail terms ranging from 1 year to life for various forms of harrassment and intimidation, including property damage, trespassing, and death threats.
The bill is largely a response to the tactics of a group called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). Active in both the U.K. and the U.S., SHAC has for years targeted U.K.-based Huntingdon Life Sciences, which uses animals to test drugs, food additives, and pesticides. Last year, SHAC reportedly intimidated the New York Stock Exchange into declining to list Huntingdon's parent company, New Jersey-based Life Sciences Research.
Research groups exulted over passage of the bill. FASEB, a coalition of biology groups, called it a "momentous step." Frankie L. Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, predicted that the new law will counter "the climate of fear that presently surrounds medical discovery and the research enterprise."
Activists believe that the measure is too restrictive, however. The Humane Society of the United States says that the law will criminalize as terrorism "a broad range of lawful, constitutionally protected, and valuable activity," including demonstrations that block the doors of a facility and cause it to lose money.
President George W. Bush is expected to sign the bill into law.