Researchers who use animals in their experiments have increasingly become the targets of life-threatening attacks. According to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, about 220 illegal incidents — including arson and bombings — were reported in the United States from 1990 to 2012.

In the past decade, extremists have shifted from attacks against universities to attacks against individuals, the data show. While in the 1990s, incidents against individuals made up 9 percent of all extremist attacks against animal researchers, the number soared to 46 percent from 2000 to 2012. These numbers include only illegal incidents, which don't count protests outside researchers' homes, which the law allows in many states.

One researcher who has been personally targeted in such attacks is J. David Jentsch, PhD, a neuroscientist studying addiction in the psychology department at the University of California, Los Angeles. On March 7, 2009, Jentsch awoke at 4 a.m. to the roaring blast of his car blowing up in his driveway and the ensuing fire threatening his home. The Animal Liberation Brigade claimed responsibility, but no charges have been filed.

Since then, Jentsch — whose research sometimes involves experiments using rats and monkeys — has received razor blades in the mail and threatening emails. He's also had groups of protesters screaming and marching at his home.

At UCLA alone, says Jentsch, there have been several other attempted and completed car-bombings aimed at researchers, as well as the flooding of a home and arson attacks.

To help scientists and others band together to defend animal research, Jentsch has formed Pro-Test for Science, an online group that holds rallies and counter-protests. Jentsch spoke with the Monitor about his experiences and why it's vital for scientists to conduct research with nonhuman animals.

What kind of research do you conduct, and why is it necessary to use animals?

One of my areas of particular concern is the relationship between the cells and circuits in the brain that we use to suppress inappropriate behavior and drug addiction. My research is focused on a circuit that in some people appears to be able to suppress drug-taking behavior and for others, fails. Most of my research subjects are rodents, as they are in many biomedical and behavioral research labs. Rodent brains are made of the same mechanisms as human brains — the same kind of cells, the same kind of neurotransmitters or chemicals.

A limited amount of my research uses monkeys. This is necessary because a rodent's brain lacks certain elements of the human brain. The circuitry of the human brain enables functions that are not present in the rodent brain. You can study the pieces in rodents, but how the building blocks work together in complex functions requires a primate model.

Animal research is used to test the safety and efficacy of drugs before they go on the market. But more important is the use of animal research in basic science to help us understand the processes that take place. There's no hope for developing medicines or interventions or treatments for the brain and for psychological functioning until you first understand how the brain works.

What precautions do you take to ensure the welfare of the research animals?

Let's look at the general sequence of events that's involved in carrying out an experiment. When it comes to nonhuman primates, research — which is expensive — is almost always grant supported, usually by NIH. The grant will get funded only if the grant review committee agrees with you that there is no other alternative to using nonhuman primates.

Once you get funded, you begin the process within your campus to obtain ethical approval. At virtually all major research universities, including UCLA, institutional animal care and use committees must pre-review all research involving vertebrate animals, from fish to reptiles to rats and mice and non-human primates. These committees review what you're proposing, consider the impact on subjects, whether you can use methods that are less harmful, the level of pain and if it can be reduced, and more.

There are a lot of experiments, particularly psychological experiments, where there's no obvious sign of harm at all, such as an experiment in which a rat learns to press a button for a food pellet. When there is potential for pain — for example an experiment that involves surgery — researchers use anesthetics and analgesics. All of our research is supervised by practicing veterinarians who know the state of the art. It's important at every step to consider the harm that could occur to the subject and try wherever possible to alleviate it.

A common feature of animal research is that usually at the end of the study, the animal subjects are euthanized, either for the purposes of collecting tissue to examine an organ of interest or for some other reason. Animals are euthanized in labs the same way they are in a vet's office — a dose of an anesthetic and the animal simply goes to sleep. This is an important part of animal research because one of the big limitations in human neuroscience and human psychology is that yes, we can image the brain, but we can't see it at a microscopic level. If you've ever seen an MRI, you know that you can't see any cells, you can't see the way they talk to one another. And mental illnesses stem from problems at the synapse level, the cell level, the molecule level, and you need to be able to directly measure and assess the brain — and that often requires post-mortem tissue.

What kind of harassment do you face?

I get very nasty, vile email and Web comments, but the most significant form of ongoing harassment is that protesters show up at my home, sometimes more than once a month, sometimes for many hours. They stand on the street, they scream truly heinous things. They make my life miserable. They make my neighbors miserable. They disrupt traffic and cause scenes. They have pictures from the 1950s that show research that has nothing to do with what I do.

The number of protesters is variable — they can be as few as a dozen and as many as 50. Fifty people marching outside your home is a very difficult situation. It's very fear-producing, no matter how many times you've gone through it. There is a municipal law in Los Angeles that allows them to come to within 100 feet of a home. It keeps them out of the driveway but it doesn't keep them very far away, and sometimes they do cross the line.

Several of the researchers have 24/7 armed guards at home. So have I since 2009. Of course our homes are equipped with electronic security. I also have electronic security at work.

What more would you like to see done, legislatively or otherwise, to protect animal researchers?

There were approximately 220 reported illegal incidents within the United States from 1990 to 2012. Incidents against individuals increased from 2000 to 2012. (Source: The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology)We need to have national legislation around personal and home targeting. Some states and municipalities have this and others don't. I have colleagues in Florida right now who are being viciously targeted at home. There's no law: Protesters can walk up to their front doors and scream at them and there's almost nothing they can do. In Maryland, you can't do home protesting at all.

I also support laws that protect faculty addresses from Freedom of Information or Public Records Act requests, such as one recently enacted in Florida. We need laws that say you can protest — we respect your rights to free speech — but you can't stand in someone's driveway for hours and call them a pedophile and say, "burn, baby, burn" and make other kinds of threats.

The most productive thing we've been trying to do recently is just to explain to people what the work's about so that we can be supported despite this kind of harassment, and that has been very successful. We've had rallies on the UCLA campus that had many, many hundreds of people involved. On the smallest scale, we've been helping our neighbors understand what this work is about. More broadly is trying to explain it in a way the larger community can understand. After spending most of my life publishing my work in academic journals, I realized we have to describe and advocate for our work in ways that are more appealing to the general public, so that's why I've talked about my work in the media.

I think scientists should routinely get together and publicly celebrate what science does — not just to respond to protesters, but to show how great science is. This is something psychological and biomedical scientists should do more often: give good messages to the community about what we do.

Has the harassment you've received made you not want to do animal research?

Nothing that has happened has made me not want to do whatever research I can to deal with this major problem for human welfare. People will often ask questions, such as is it right or is it ethical to do this research? It's an important question. Another important question is, what's the ethics of not doing the research? After all, people are dying from addictive behaviors — opiate overdose is completely out of control in this country.

I will also say that these events — the firebombing, the razor blades, the threats, the home demonstrations — naturally cause one to ask oneself whether it is worth it. And my answer is yes, despite the personal costs, which have been tremendous, despite the incessant attacks, the science is so important that I'm willing to accept this kind of harassment and attacks to see it through.

The research has to be done now because people are dying today. I'm willing to accept this personal consequence to see the work get done.

Lorna Collier is a journalist in Chicago.

APA's stance on animal research

Based on the conviction that research with nonhuman animals has been and continues to be integral to scientific progress and improving the health of people and other animals, APA strongly supports humanely conducted, ethically and scientifically sound research with nonhuman animals. For nearly 100 years, through its Committee on Animal Research and Ethics, APA has promoted educated, serious and civil dialogue about the role of nonhuman animal research in science.