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Analysis: Extremist Web sites alarm pharma

By STEVE MITCHELL, UPI Senior Medical Correspondent   |   Aug. 4, 2006 at 6:00 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- The pharmaceutical industry is concerned animal-rights extremists' growing and popular presence on myspace.com, a social networking Web site that links users from around the world, will recruit new members to the animal rights movement.

The industry is seeking ways to counter the animal-rights groups including launching their own MySpace profiles.

"MySpace is clearly a great recruiting tool for the demographic of teenagers and young adults," Jacquie Calnan, president of Americans for Medical Progress, a group in Alexandria, Va., that is supported by the pharmaceutical industry, told United Press International.

She noted the animal-rights groups also have a strong presence on youtube.com, posting videos of animal experiments and activists vandalizing labs.

"It's very worrisome," Calnan said, adding that she's worried that young people may be particularly susceptible to some of the messages coming from the animal rights extremists.

"There are folks who really aren't fully mature yet who are seeing this and want to make a name among themselves and haven't been exposed to the other side of the issue," she said. "I'm concerned what a 17-year-old may take away from those messages."

Getting the pro-animal-research message to young people may require groups such as hers to establish a presence on MySpace and similar sites.

"We need to be examining how best we put out the message to this next generation," Calnan said. "Maybe we also need to be putting up pages on MySpace and similar networking sites. It's certainly something we're debating what direction we should take."

Individual pharmaceutical companies also might launch their own MySpace profiles. "It's not outside the realm of possibility," she said.

The pharmaceutical industry may be facing an uphill battle.

Several animal-rights groups, including Animal Liberation Front's Press Office and Win Animal Rights, or WAR, have very popular MySpace profiles. They are supported by and linked to thousands of individual members, many of whom also post favorable comments on the pages, such as a user named "Laura," who recently wrote on the WAR profile: "It sickens me to know what is going on in this world, thankyou for the awareness you bring so more people can help fight this horrible crime. These people will get what they deserve!!!!!"

The sites generally carry pictures and videos of lab animals, such as dogs or monkeys in cages or being dissected, and activists releasing animals, breaking into labs or carrying out protests.

Camille Hankins, spokeswoman for WAR, told UPI her organization's MySpace profile was initially started by a member of the group as a hobby but it has since become an effective means of spreading their message.

"We do get a lot of traffic from MySpace to our website," Hankins said. "We're especially exposing a lot of young people that may have not known this was going on," she added.

However, Hankins said the MySpace traffic does not seem to be translating into new participants in the protests her group holds in New York City.

"Then again, if they're writing a polite letter to Pfizer asking them to stop dealing with puppy killers at Huntingdon, I could deal with that," she added.

Huntingdon Life Sciences supplies lab animals to pharmaceutical companies and has long been a target of animal rights activists.

WAR is currently embroiled in a lawsuit from Huntingdon in which the company has been granted a temporary restraining order barring WAR from carrying out certain activities and requiring them to notify police before conducting a protest.

The suit threatens to exhaust WAR's financial resources, Hankins said, but she noted that it also appears to be an indication their campaigns against big pharma companies have been successful. Pharmaceutical companies targeted by WAR include Roche, Novartis, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline because they conduct business with Huntingdon.

"I don't think we'd be in court if we hadn't had an impact," she said, noting that Huntingdon couldn't be suing her for her money because she doesn't have any.

Hankins added that even if legal challenges and increased law enforcement efforts manage to suppress some animal rights activists, this could backfire and actually make things worse.

"My prediction is you are probably going to see a great increase in underground illegal activity," she said. "Will they (activists) be breaking into labs? Maybe. Will they be spraypainting doors and windows of executives' (of pharmaceutical companies) homes? Maybe."

Despite these predictions, Hankins, who also serves as a spokeswoman for the Animal Liberation Front, rejects the notion often raised by law enforcement officials that activists might kill researchers or other people.

"The Animal Liberation Front has been around for over 25 years and not a single person has ever been injured as a result of ALF action," which has included thousands of actions resulting in millions of dollars in damages, she said. "That is not by accident."

© 2006 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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