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In the early-morning hours of Nov. 9, a shadowy animal-rights army called the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) placed a small incendiary device in the after-hours deposit box of a Wachovia bank branch at the intersection of El Toro Road and Paseo de Valencia in Laguna Woods. The group, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, apparently targeted the bank because of its ties to a controversial New Jersey-based animal-testing laboratory, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS).
The device did not explode. ALF claimed credit for its attack in a communiqué published online by the Animal Liberation Press Office, a Woodland Hills-based organization that serves as a public-relations clearinghouse for the secretive group. In its statement, ALF said its action was timed to coincide with a Nov. 10 global day of protest against HLS carried out by the England-based Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a coalition of animal-rights groups. The communiqué charged Wachovia with being the second-largest shareholder in HLS.
"Wachovia bank, you may see torturing animals and fraudulent science as a sound investment," the communiqué charged. "So we see you as one of our newest enemies. We dropped a small incendiary device into the after-hours deposit queue of your Laguna Woods branch last night. You will see more. Sell your shares in HLS."
On Nov. 19, SHAC issued a press release stating that Wachovia had dropped its shares of HLS. "After sustained protests across the globe . . . Wachovia [has] done the right thing and stopped supporting the cruelty at HLS by dropping their shares. Well done to everyone across the globe who took part in demonstrations and e-mail campaigns!"
Wachovia officials would not discuss the bank's investments with the Weekly, nor would they comment on the Laguna Woods incident, but an Orange County Fire Authority spokesperson said a bank employee discovered the device. He referred all additional questions to the FBI, which is investigating the incident.
"It is being treated as an act of domestic terrorism," said FBI spokesperson Laura Eimiller, adding that the device contained a liquid that is currently being tested to see if it is flammable. "We are looking for the individuals who are responsible."
While apparently the first such incident in Orange County, the attack was the latest in a series of actions—ranging from vandalism to strategic placement of unexploded bombs from Southern California to the Pacific Northwest—carried out by ALF and similar groups opposed to animal testing. In March, ALF vandalized the Portland home of a Wachovia financial adviser; a month later, ALF tagged an SUV outside the home of another company executive.
In taking credit for the latter attack, the group cited Wachovia's investment in GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a pharmaceutical company that uses HLS labs to test its products. "Sell your shares in GSK because things are about to get much worse," ALF warned. "We have the names and addresses of the top executives, and believe us our actions are like child's play compared to what we have in store."
On June 27, an ALF-like organization called the Animal Rights Brigade claimed credit for an improvised explosive device left next to a car parked outside the home of Edythe London, a UCLA psychiatry and behavioral-studies professor whose research involves primates. The FBI, which is still investigating all three incidents, announced a $110,000 award for information leading to the identity of those who placed the bomb. An agency press release announcing the award noted that a similar device had been placed at a home in Bel-Air, which the FBI said ALF had mistaken for the residence of an unnamed UCLA professor.
FBI spokeswoman Eimiller confirmed that the Nov. 9 incident in Laguna Woods is being investigated by her agency as part of its ongoing probe of ALF attacks. "ALF is considered to be among the groups that pose the most serious domestic-terrorism threat," she said. "They have demonstrated that they aim to resolve their issues by using criminal activity against individuals or companies that they perceive to be abusing animals. And we have seen in the past decade an escalation in the number of attacks, and they have become more violent."
HLS became a major target of both ALF and legitimate animal-rights groups thanks to video footage taken inside an HLS laboratory in England, where the company was previously based. The grainy footage, which can be seen on YouTube by searching for "punching puppies," was smuggled out of the lab by activists who surreptitiously got jobs at the facility. It shows lab workers shouting at dogs for not cooperating, shaking them violently and hitting at least one dog in the face.
HLS lost its operating license for six months after that footage aired on British television in 1997; the company moved to New Jersey due to the negative publicity and increasing acts of vandalism and threats against HLS officials in England. The following year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture fined the lab for 28 alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act when activists aired similarly gruesome footage of employees at the New Jersey facility involving live dissections of monkeys.
Efforts to reach ALF for this story itself were unsuccessful. "ALF and other animal-liberation organizations operate anonymously because they are doing illegal activities," said Camille Henkins, an Animal Liberation Press Office spokesperson in New York City. "We relay the information to the press because that is the only way these underground activists can communicate with the press and explain their actions. We honestly don't know who these people are and prefer it that way."