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Thursday, 18 January, 2001, 17:22 GMT
Banks run 'scared' of animal protesters
Graphs showing Huntingdon's share price development since 1 January 2000
The controversial research centre Huntingdon Life Sciences is fighting for its life, desperate to secure last-minute backing which could secure its future.

Huntingdon scientist
The public find terrorist attacks on scientists abhorrent

Animal rights activists have certainly sent many investors scurrying for safer bets with their frightening assaults, whether verbal or physical.

But rather than having won them over with their anti-vivisection arguments, the investors, concerned about their images and their profits, are just following their commercial instincts.

Following Huntingdon's 1.9m losses during the third quarter of 2000, many banks may no longer think of the company as a good bet for future investment.

Which is one explanation why the company's share price has fallen from over 3 ten years ago to below 2 pence earlier this week.

Fear exists that it may not be able to refinance its 22m debts and retain its US listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

The company's search for a new private sector investor has intensifed and it has until Friday to repay the loan to the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The deadline has already been extended three times, and the heat is on as the Royal Bank of Scotland and two other unnamed banks decide whether to renew the loans.

Investors pull out

The animal rights campaigners have played their part in investors' decision making.

A raft of the company's large share holders have sold their stakes in Huntingdon over the last months, as animal rights activists have targeted first the research company and more recently its financial backers.

Demonstrator blaming banks for animal cruelty
...but they tend not to mind peaceful demonstrations against banks

Anti-vivisection extremists have poured acid in the eyes of scientists, issued death threats against managers and petrol bombed cars owned by staff.

Arguably, these tactics may be as likely to reduce public support for the activists as it is to destroy the public image of the banks.

But major financial market players such as Citibank, HSBC and Phillips & Drew - as well as Huntingdon's broker WestLB Panmure - have turned their backs on the research company.

Costly campaigns

"There's an enormous amount of direct action in many areas, and this will cost companies money," ethical investment advisor Dan Kemp of Holden Meehan in London said.

We live in a pragmatic society. If a business looks as if it is in trouble, investors are going to pull out

Dan Kemp
ethical investment advisor
Not least because banks, investors and other financial firms are "very concerned about public perception", he added.

For the Royal Bank of Scotland, the UK's biggest bank and one of Huntington's main creditors, this kind of concern about image has taken on a new dimension.

Anti-vivisection demonstrators have been targeting the bank's branches, trying to convince its customers to close their accounts to protest the bank's backing of Huntington.

"[Banks] must learn that to betray the animals inside HLS is a decision they will regret for years to come," a statement on the campaign Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty's website said.

Pragmatic investors

It is still not clear whether the banks will continue to back Huntingdon.

Animal rights campaigning lady
The militant activists' goals, if not methods, receive widespread public support
But what is clear is that failure to secure further extensions from its creditors, or to find a new financial backer, could bring about the research company's collapse.

But investors and anti-visisectionists make uneasy bedfollows, and just because financiers are deserting Huntingdon, it does not mean they will desert similar companies.

"We live in a pragmatic society. If a business looks as if it is in trouble, investors are going to pull out," said Mr Kemp.

He argues that protestors - whether they are environmentalists targeting a polluter or human rights activists targeting firms using child labour - tend to target companies that fail to execute the best practices of their industry.

Investors tend to respond by moving their money away from the targeted firm and instead invest in its competitors.

Alternatively, they will shift away from the controversial industry altogether - although this will not happen if the sector is making healthy profits, he argued.

Indifference despised

In the battle for public sympathy, it is always difficult for banks to come out on top.

If they hope to escape blame simply by portraying themselves as impartial bankers, they may well be very disappointed.

Woman with
Anti-vivisectionists have tarnished Huntingdon's image
Mr Kemp argues that whereas most people in the UK despise terrorist attacks by militant anti-vivisectionists, they are broadly sympathetic towards peaceful demonstrators.

And whereas they tend to support animal testing for medical purposes, they are often opposed to so-called unnecessary cosmetic research.

Furthermore; when given a choice, most people tend to have more sympathy with protesting activists than they have with pragmatic, indifferent bankers who are only in it for the money, Mr Kemp argues.

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