Animal Passion

updated 01/18/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/18/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

EARLY ON A RAINY EVENING LAST AUTUMN, PEOPLE correspondent Sue Carswell and photographer Robin Bowman arrived at National Airport in Washington, D.C. There they were picked up by a windowless white delivery van. At the wheel was Ingrid Newkirk, executive director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a national animal rights group. Carswell and Bowman lay down on the floor in the back of the van. Blind to passing scenery, they felt the vehicle shift and turn through traffic but couldn't be sure how long their journey was taking: Both had been instructed to leave their watches behind. At one point, the van stopped and a new driver took over. Eventually they arrived at a small suburban house. Inside, a woman in a strawberry-blond wig and rose-tinted glasses stood to greet them.

Thus began an unprecedented interview with Valerie, the pseudonymous founder and head of the U.S. Animal Liberation Front. ALF, a controversial underground group that opposes what it regards as human exploitation of animals, claims responsibility for millions of dollars in damage to research laboratories across the U.S. that it has deemed abusive. Since 1982, Valerie claims to have led or planned about 50 raids—news accounts put the total number of ALF raids in the U.S. at 86—in which biomedical facilities, research labs, fur farms and other targets were firebombed, vandalized or had their animals "liberated." As a result, ALF activists are being sought for questioning, Valerie says, by the FBI, Scotland Yard and Interpol, an international agency that coordinates information about criminal activities.

A string of recent ALF attacks has prompted law-enforcement authorities to step up their efforts to crack the group, which the FBI lists as a terrorist organization. In June 1991, ALF claimed credit for $800,000 worth of damage caused by arson at the Northwest Farm Food Cooperative in Edmonds, Wash., a supplier of feed to mink ranches. That same month, the group also took responsibility for a fire at Oregon State University's experimental fur farm in Corvallis. In October 1992, ALF says, it set fire to USDA research offices that were connected to predator research at Utah State University in Millville. And last February, ALF issued a press release claiming responsibility for the torching of a mink lab at Michigan State University in East Lansing that resulted in nearly $125,000 in damage. Federal grand juries believed to be investigating these and other incidents have been meeting in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Michigan and Louisiana.

Intent on staying out of jail, Valerie leads a double life. In the 11 years since she started ALF's U.S. branch, she has, she says, kept up appearances as an ordinary suburbanite. Married and the mother of a small child (here, as elsewhere, Valerie refuses to be more specific for fear it will provide clues to her identity), she does volunteer work at a local library, reads mysteries, watches Murphy Brown and attends Tupperware parties. "My friends think I'm only into my baby and gardening," she says.

The rest of her life is another story, which she proceeds to tell, over the course of three hours, in her first interview with a journalist. [Valerie agreed to be interviewed on the condition that no information about her identity or her whereabouts, beyond what she herself divulged, would be sought In PEOPLE. The magazine scrupulously observed all applicable laws in gathering information for this story.] "People often get very upset about what they call the violence of burning down a building," says Valerie. "I don't think that destroying a building can be really classified as violence. I think that burning an animal is violent." ALF, she claims, targets experiments that cause pain or whose ultimate results benefit grant-seeking researchers more than medicine. ALF's tactics, Valerie argues, are no more extreme than the cruelly inflicted on animals by researchers. "People burn animals with blowtorches. They immerse guinea pigs in scalding water. They put electrodes into cats' heads."

Researchers, not surprisingly, vigorously dispute many of ALF's claims and are incensed at its lawlessness. "Research on animals is absolutely essential," says Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, chancellor of the Baylor College of Medicine at Texas Medical Center in Houston. DeBakey, who used dogs and calves in his pioneering work on open-heart surgery, argues, "At a certain stage in research, you have to lest [techniques and drugs] on complex biological models before trying them on humans. If these people succeed, they're going to destroy the research that will lead to cures of disease and treatment of health."

ALF's tactics also trouble other animal-protection groups. "We don't think violence advances the cause of animal protection," says Dr. Martin Stephens, vice president for laboratory animals at the Humane Society of the United States. "It's true scientists are doing things to animals they wouldn't think of doing to people," he concedes. "But for now, we think it's a justified and necessary evil."

Valerie disagrees. "Animal experiments are as ludicrous as they are cruel. We get results when our healthcare dollars go into prevention, direct care, modern technology and clinical studies, not when we steal monkeys' organs and electroshock rats."

For all her radicalism today, Valerie started off in what might have been a conventional life. "I grew up in a conservative family," she says. "My father worked for a large corporation. My mother was a teacher. I guess I can say that," she laughs. "There are a million teachers in the world."

Trying to pinpoint a formative moment, Valerie recalls a fishing expedition with her aunt and uncle when she was 10. "I caught a fish and reeled it in and watched it flop around and gasp," she says. "I started crying and begged them to take the hook out and put the fish back in the water. My aunt and uncle laughed. 'Don't worry,' they said. "This is fishing!' "

Valerie worked in a veterinarian's office during her high school years, but after taking law-enforcement classes in college, she says, she decided to join a local police force. She was sitting in a squad car one night in 1981, she reports, when a call came over the radio. The Institute for Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Md., was about to be raided on animal-cruelly charges. Valerie says she did not take part in the raid but learned later that the police had found 17 monkeys in small, filthy cages. Funded by grants from NIH to conduct experiments intended to help stroke victims regain use of paralyzed limbs, institute researchers had operated on the spinal cords of some of the monkeys, slicing sensory nerves to mimic the paralysis caused by strokes. Some of the monkeys had raw, open wounds. Others had chewed off their own fingers—from pain and stress, says Valerie. News stories at the time jibed with her account of the animals' condition.

The animals were confiscated by Montgomery County police and taken to a house in Rockville, Md. But the lab's chief, Dr. Edward Taub, successfully argued in court that they were his property. A judge ordered that the monkeys be returned. Valerie, who says she was deeply upset by reports of the monkeys' condition, provides the following account of what happened next: An animal welfare officer on the original raid who was a friend of Valerie's approached her with a highly irregular request. The officer and several friends planned to kidnap the monkeys. They asked Valerie to park a police cruiser in front of their truck to help deflect any suspicion of wrongdoing while they smuggled the animals from the building.

Valerie consented. "The animals needed help," she says. "I felt if I didn't do something, I would never forgive myself for abandoning them."

A month later Valerie took a leave of absence from her job. She had read about the Animal Liberation Front, an underground group based in England that had been raiding animal research laboratories there. After making inquiries about ALF to a British animal rights group, she flew to London and was met by intermediaries. Valerie convinced them that she wasn't a spy, then was led to a pub and introduced to ALF's leader, Ronnie Lee, now 41, who had started the group six years earlier. (Lee was released from a British prison last Nov. 13 after serving five years for conspiracy involving ALF crimes.)

In Britain, ALF members taught her how to pick locks, disconnect alarms and obtain a fake driver's license. She arrived home in autumn 1982 and proceeded to organize ALF's American debut: On Christmas Eve she and two others broke into a lab at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where researchers had been using cats to study the effects of drugs on nerve transmission. They found about 30 cats, some with their backs scarred by deep incisions, dragging their hind legs. The team photographed the cats, then delivered them to a sympathetic veterinarian who treated them, after which they were placed for adoption. The next day Valerie anonymously dropped the pictures at the Maryland offices of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Soon afterward, PETA's director, Ingrid Newkirk, called a press conference, and ALF U.S. was on the map. Although PETA has no connection to ALF, it has consistently publicized evidence it has received from the group.

Thus began Valerie's career. Over the following years, ALF-America carried out numerous raids. On Memorial Day weekend, 1984, acting on a tip. Valerie and others broke into a laboratory run by Dr. Thomas Gennarelli al the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Gennarelli had been funded by NIH to study head injuries in baboons. In his lab, ALF discovered about 60 hours of videotape that showed, among other things, the baboons, their heads cemented into plastic helmets, being knocked unconscious by a blow that smashed their brains against their skulls. Once again PETA publicized the evidence, prompting a public outcry. Citing "serious concerns" about the animals' treatment, then Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler terminated Gennarelli's funding. In 1985, Congress approved legislation increasing safeguards for laboratory animals, requiring, among other things, that painkillers and euthanasia be used on animals that suffer in experiments. Eight years after the release of the baboon tapes, Carol Farnsworth, associate vice president for university relations at Penn, says, "I don't think pictures lie. Because of the [Gennarelli] case, changes were made that affect how research is carried out. At Penn, we have spent at least $18 million upgrading facilities and cages where animals are kept."

In April 1985, ALF raided a psychology lab at the University of California at Riverside. There, it "liberated" about 650 animals, including an infant stumptail macaque monkey whose eyes had been sewn shut with coarse thread as part of a sight deprivation study. When ALF's evidence was made public, Dr. Grant Mack, president of the American Council for the Blind, denounced the experiment as "one of the most repugnant and ill-conceived boondoggles I've heard about for a long lime." Dr. Jack Chappell, director of university relations, defends the study. "Those size sutures were required to prevent tearing," he says, adding that today, the university uses small plastic cups to cover monkeys' eyes instead of sutures. "An NIH investigation exonerated the university of cruelty charges," he says.

To date, no U.S. ALF member has ever been arrested or charged by law-enforcement authorities. In addition to investigations by the FBI, the search for ALF has been conducted since 1982 by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a branch of the Treasury Department that investigates arson affecting interstate commerce. "ALF's motive is irrelevant," says US-BATF spokesman Jack Killorin. "They are breaking the law in severely life-threatening and violent ways."

Yet officials even now are believed to have little knowledge of ALE "ALF has been successful because it's not an organization the police can easily track," says Ken Olsen, a reporter for the Moscow-Pullman (Wash.) Daily News, who has written about ALF sabotage in the Northwest and whose documents have been subpoenaed by a Utah grand jury. "It seems to be a loose collection of individuals who keep no membership lists or telephone numbers. No one has ever publicly admitted being a member of ALF."

In recent years, Valerie says, she has scaled back her activities, turning day-to-day coordination of ALF over to a Midwesterner she calls Joe. She continues to help plan raids, she says, but is now devoting more time to her child and husband. Four times a year, she travels to an ALF sanctuary, where she assists in the care of three chimps she helped remove from a lab in Maryland, where they were to be infected with HIV as part of an AIDS research project. "My husband knows about my work, but we don't discuss it," she says. "It's safer that way."

Valerie says she is aware of the risks of her work and accepts them. Despite the debate over ALF's tactics, and outrage among scientists who believe her crusade, by inhibiting medical research into diseases such as AIDS, could cost human lives, Valerie is un-apologetic. "Animal abuse is interwoven into the fabric of our society," she says. "I don't know if anyone can be completely free of exploiting others, but I do the best I can." She wears no leather or wool, eats no meal, dairy products, eggs, or even honey. "I don't think we should ever take an animal's life, ever," she says. "For me, compassion is indivisible."

From Our Partners