KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Police have issued a nationwide alert against the possibility that animal rights extremists gunned down a veterinary college dean and intend to kill 'one dean a month for the next 12 months,' authorities said Saturday.
Sheriff's deputies stressed they issued the alert only as a precaution, based on unconfirmed information. But they also said they had called the FBI into the investigation of the ambush-slaying of Hyram Kitchen, dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.
The alert, placed on the National Crime Information Center computer, warned that a militant underground animal rights faction might be responsible for killing Kitchen on Feb. 8.
It also said investigators have obtained reports that animal rights extremists have threatened to kill veterinary college deans around the country at the rate of 'one dean a month for the next 12 months' to protest laboratory research on animals.
'We have not been able to confirm this threat,' said the alert, which was issued Wednesday and obtained by United Press International Friday. 'Our department has contacted the FBI and is working with them on the possibility of these radical animal rights groups being involved.'
The alert said Kitchen 'had been very moderate in his dealings with the animal rights groups.'
'However, our investigation to this point has turned up no other motives for his death,' it said.
As he left his horse farm on the morning of Feb. 8, Kitchen, 57, was shot eight times with a .22-caliber handgun: four times in the face and chest, twice in the back as he ran away and twice point-blank in the back of the head as he was on the ground, officials said.
A neighbor reported hearing conversations outside Kitchen's home, then hearing gunshots and seeing someone run through a field behind the house. Robbery was ruled out as a motive, because nothing was taken.
Officials said the alert was intended for police with veterinary colleges in their districts. Terry Curtin, dean of the North Carolina State University veterinary school at Raleigh, said police told him of the alert.
'I've been advised to not establish any patterns ... to take a different route to work each day,' Curtin said. 'I've told my associate deans and faculty to keep their eyes open for anything strange.'
The dean of the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine said Saturday he has talked to police about the reported threats against veterinary deans, but would not disclose what was discussed.
'I'm not going to talk about it,' Ronald Wright said. 'We're not going to get carried away, but we're certainly taking it seriously.'
One animal rights activist contacted by UPI Saturday, the Midwest program coordinator for 'In Defense of Animals,' discounted the police warning.
'I would tend to doubt animal-rights activists had anything to do with (the Kitchen shooting),' said Michael Budkie, whose group staged a mock funeral in Cincinnati Saturday to protest the use of animals in product testing by Procter & Gamble Co.
'Most of the animal-rights people I know are opposed to product testing and experimentation because they are offended by violence,' he said. 'It would be absurd for anybody like that, who's opposed to hurting animals, to kill a human being.'
Ginger Wolf agreed.
'They (the deans) are the scum of the earth,' the president of Lehigh Valley Animal Rights Coalition in Pennsylvania said. 'I loathe them and what they do for a living. But I wouldn't kill them.'
She said even the implication that animal rights groups may be behind Kitchen's murder would hurt the movement.
'We've made a lot of progress recently but this is a setback for the movement,' she said. 'We've always had the moral high ground.
'We're avant-garde and militant but certainly not violent. We do demonstrations and sit-ins. No person that calls him or herself an animal rights activist would do this.'
Knox County sheriff's Lt. Larry Johnson said investigators based the alert on threatening mail to the University of Tennessee and on conversations with colleagues of Kitchen about threats they had received.
'The information we released was as a precautionary measure only,' Johnson said. 'We just put out third-hand information. We put it out for only one reason. We didn't want to sit on anything.
'Everything in it was unconfirmed,' he said. 'It was a 'for-what-it's worth' teletype based on second-, third- and fourth-hand information. There is no indication of any truth to it, and there is nothing in the investigation that points back to it.'
In an interview, Kitchen's wife, Yvonne, who was inside their home during the killing, said she knows nothing of any involvement by animal rights extremists in her husband's slaying.
But she said investigators 'can't find anything.'
'They're frustrated and so am I,' she said.
In 1988, animal rights activists protested the use of animals for research at Tennessee's veterinary college, and Kitchen had defended the practice. He acknowledged that each year, the school conducts research on 250 stray dogs, cats and other pets obtained from animal pounds and dealers.
But he said in an interview, 'The majority are used to teach our students. They are taught surgical procedures on the animals and those procedures are terminal. We kill animals, but always for the benefit of mankind and never in a callous manner.'