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Friday, 1 June, 2001, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
Protests in a quiet corner
Huntingdon Life Sciences
Protesters have one mission: To close the site
Animal rights have become one of the issues which rally protesters - nowhere more so than in Huntingdon, writes BBC News Online's Melissa Jackson

Huntingdon can lay claim to at least one famous revolutionary, but long after the death of Cromwell a new cause has emerged to shake this peaceful corner of Cambridgeshire.

The headquarters of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) have become a high profile target for protesters opposed to the company's on-going programme of experiments on animals for the pharmaceuticals industry.

Lab technician
HLS: experimnts on 70,000 animals annually
Founded in 1952, HLS has long been a focus for animal rights groups, who have organised protests, rallies and mass demonstrations.

But over the past 18 months there has been a different trend to the attacks as staff and shareholders have found themselves on the receiving end of threats and assaults.

The company's managing director, Brian Cass, needed stitches for a three-inch wound to his head after being attacked outside his home earlier this year.

Brian Cass
Brian Cass, determined to carry on
Security has always been a priority at the site in Woolley, north of Huntingdon, which has come to look like a low-rise prison with coils of barbed wire wrapped around the perimeter fence.

But this has done nothing to deter protesters who have consistently staged demonstrations outside the premises, where 70,000 animals are used annually for experiments.

One group determined to see off HLS is Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (Shac), which advocates the non-violent campaign tactics of protest and persuasion.

Dying or born again?

Greg Jennings, from Shac, dismisses HLS as "a loss making company".

"HLS is a cancer on the side of Huntingdon and the community - they're dying," he says.

The government has however thrown its weight behind fighting the protesters, allocating a special 1m grant to Cambridgeshire Police to help them bear the cost of dealing with a series of demonstrations.

Jack Straw, Home Secretary
Jack Straw: Clampdown on extremists
Home Secretary Jack Straw has proposed changes in the law to stop what calls "animal terrorism". The plans relate to intimidation and malicious communication and, if passed, would form part of the Criminal Justice Bill.

Mr Straw has made a forceful defence of the industry, saying many people would not be alive today if it was not for the work of companies like HLS.

There is little between the two main parties in this policy area at least, thanks largely to Mr Major.

Tory curbs

Tim Yeo, the shadow Agriculture Secretary, won support from the animal welfare lobby when he promised the Tories would, if they won the election, introduce a Protection of Animals Bill to impose curbs on experiments.

HLS protester
A protester during an anti-HLS demonstration
The party also promised to create a new offence banning actions "likely to cause unnecessary suffering".

But Mr Major lobbied for a softer stance which saw the party revise its policy on animal experiments after he raised fears it could leave scientists open to attack from extremists.

Shares fall

However, the animal rights groups continue their campaign unabated, their sole mission being to bring down HLS. And they claim considerable success after their activities forced the company's shares to plummet.

HLS protesters
Protest: the campaign continues
HLS teetered on the brink of collapse last year when the Royal Bank of Scotland refused to extend the deadline on a loan repayment any further, having given them three stays of execution.

But they secured an eleventh hour deal with an anonymous backer, which catapulted their stock price into mini orbit.

Shares in the company had hovered around the 3p mark for the past 12 months, but jumped to 23p at the beginning of the year when HLS announced its rescue funding package.

12-month breath space

As if to defy the animal rights activists, it crowed about the package ensuring the company's survival for at least another year.

Mouse and needle
Vivisection arouses strong passions on both sides of the debate
The firm admitted it would have collapsed without the cash injection, which was needed to repay the 22.6m loan from the Royal Bank of Scotland and two unnamed US lenders.

The future is uncertain though. Animal rights activists have said they will escalate protest actions against both Huntingdon Life Sciences and its customers.

But Brian Cass and his team are defiant that their work will continue.

The places The people The controversy The sights
1. The places 2. The people
3. The sights 4. The controversy