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Universities seek to shield researchers from animal rights activists

Their fear has caged them into silence. They have done what they can to hide their identities. But oftentimes, it’s not enough to escape the threats and harassment.

Animal researchers from public universities around Florida are now fighting to keep their personal information out of the hands of animal rights activists.

A bill moving through the House of Representatives would exempt the personal identification information of animal researchers at public research facilities from being public record.

UF, along with several state universities, is lobbying for the bill to protect researchers from potential danger and harassment.

In Gainesville, an animal rights group has made UF’s involvement personal.

The Eleventh Hour for Animals, which works to expose “the taxpayer-funded animal torture industry inside the University of Florida,” has published personal identification information on UF animal researchers on their website. The group, known primarily for targeting UF primate researchers, has publicized personal phone numbers, addresses and pictures of animal researchers at UF.

Disturbing pictures of primates being examined by researchers are featured on the organization’s website along with posters with quotes like “stop the holocaust inside UF, free the monkeys.”

After a three year lawsuit, the organization, formerly named Negotiation is Over, obtained UF’s public veterinary records last April.

The researchers named in public records were the first ones to be targeted by animal rights activists, said Janine Sikes, a UF spokeswoman.

“The university wants to be very open and honest about its research,” she said. “It wants to stop these personal attacks against our researchers.”

Sikes said the animal rights activists have made harassing phone calls, targeted family members and made death threats to UF animal researchers. Due to this, the Eleventh Hour for Animals is under surveillance from the police department and the FBI.

UF provided much of the language in the bill, which could take effect as soon as July.

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If approved, the bill would exempt the personal identification of researchers in animal records on treatment and care, research protocols and approvals, purchase or billing records, animal care and use committee records, and facility and lab records.

In 2011, a member of Eleventh Hour for Animals posted fliers offering money for information on researchers experimenting with animals. However, Camille A. Marino, Eleventh Hour for Animals founder and executive director, said that the group has never threatened or committed violent acts against the researchers at UF.

“The only violence that is happening is the violence they commit against animals for money,” she said. “My intent is never to threaten anyone, only to provide information that the community has a right to know.”

On behalf of the Eleventh Hour for Animals, Marino has filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture requesting an investigation into “apparent egregious and repeated violations of the Animal Welfare Act related to nonhuman primates being warehoused inside the University of Florida.” The letter details the organization’s concern for UF’s treatment of Booger, a macaque monkey.

Marino said the monkey is showing signs of mental deterioration because of his confinement.

“I want him out of there,” Marino said. “I want all of the monkeys out of there. I fully intend to do whatever it takes to have that program shut down and disbanded.”

UF is not alone in its fight for privacy. Universities lobbying for the bill include the University of Central Florida, Florida International University and the University of South Florida.

Grant Heston, associate vice president for communications and public affairs at UCF, said animal researchers are being targeted at universities across the U.S.

“We feel it’s a responsible measure to help protect those individuals,” Heston said.

Due to colleagues receiving threats, a UF researcher has chosen to remain anonymous to discuss possible future primate research.

“I’m extremely concerned about being able to do primate research on this campus,” the researcher said. “I don’t want my name and my house bombed. I don’t want them to stand in front of my house.”

The researcher’s fear is concern enough to consider not performing research on the primates. The researcher wants to give back to humans with their research but may reconsider for fear of harassment, adding, “I will face a horrific time if my name is not covered.”

[A version of this story ran on page 1 on 4/4/2014 under the headline "Universities seek to shield researchers from activists"]

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