How the AETA was Maneuvered through Congress with Little Opposition

What This Will Mean For The Animals.

In the year 2006 there should have been strong opposition to any effort to infringe on rights under the First Amendment. But there wasn’t. Not until it was too late to stop the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act from becoming law.

Now for the sake of the animals who suffer terribly at the hands of medical researchers, puppy millers, slaughterhouses, factory farms, pet stores, breeders, furriers, restaurants, circuses, rodeos, and zoos, we must come together with groups that support the First Amendment and change this law either through the new Congress or the courts.

Before we begin efforts to change this law, it is important to understand its reach. It is important to understand how AETA became law with so little opposition.

AETA Calls “Terrorism” Non-Violent Protests, Boycotts, Investigations and Whistleblowing on Behalf of the Animals This is the crime defined by AETA: (a) Offense- Whoever travels in interstate or foreign commerce, or uses or causes to be used the mail or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce– (1) for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise; and (2) in connection with such purpose– (A) intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property (including animals or records) used by an animal enterprise, or any real or personal property of a person or entity having a connection to, relationship with, or transactions with an animal enterprise; (B) intentionally places a person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to that person, a member of the immediate family … of that person, or a spouse or intimate partner of that person by a course of conduct involving threats, acts of vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment, or intimidation; or (C) conspires or attempts to do so.

 “[L]oss of any real or personal property” is not limited to physical or tangible loss. There is an exemption for “any lawful economic disruption (including a lawful boycott) that results from lawful public, governmental, or business reaction to the disclosure of information about an animal enterprise”. The exemption does not appear to apply to “loss of any real or personal property”. That means it is illegal to cause an animal enterprise to lose profits or good will, its customers, donors, and supporters. Also, “animal enterprise” could include even businesses that are unlawful in some states but legal in others like cock fighting. If someone pulls a cock out of a cockfighting pen, is he a “terrorist”?

The new law then provides that even if there is no economic damage or bodily injury to anyone and no one is even caused to feel “reasonable fear” of harm, a person who, for example, protests the actions of an animal enterprise, may still be fined and imprisoned for one year. Under the penalty provisions, “terrorists” may be ordered to pay restitution which can include “any losses or costs caused by economic disruption”. “Economic disruption” is not specifically defined. There is no exemption for “any lawful economic disruption (including a lawful boycott) that results from lawful public, governmental, or business reaction to the disclosure of information about an animal enterprise”. That exemption appears only to apply to "economic damage". Regardless, the exemption is vague and does not include what should be many forms of lawful conduct. Also under the penalty provision, `economic damage’ includes “losses and increased costs resulting from threats, …harassment, or intimidation”. But “threats”, “harassment” and “intimidation” are nowhere defined or limited at all.

For example, if a group of animal rights activists make “threats” to initiate a boycott of a pet store for selling puppies from mills that ultimately causes economic damage to the store or the miller, are the protesters subject to penalties under this bill? If rodeo attendees are “intimidat[ed]” when people picket the treatment of animals and decide not to attend the event, will the picketers be charged with animal terrorism under these bills? If people write or call numerous times to protest animal testing at a research lab which as a result of the ensuing negative publicity loses a grant or other funding, are those who wrote and called then guilty of “harassment” defined as animal terrorism under these bills? And what of whistleblowers? If they "threat[en]" to expose animal mistreatment at a facility where they work and thus cause economic damage, are they then "animal terrorists"? If there is probable cause to believe a business may experience economic disruption or damages, a federal court could order wiretapping of animal rescue or advocacy organizations.

Worse yet, the AETA is so vague and confusing, it is not clear exactly what conduct is prohibited or will be punished as terrorism. As a result, the AETA is likely to chill legitimate protest, investigative and whistle-blowing activity. It will cause animal advocates and others to refrain from protests, investigations or whistle blowing for fear they may be labeled terrorists and sent to jail. In effect, the new law greatly expands the power of the federal government to protect from most protests animal testing labs, puppy mills, slaughterhouses, factory farms, breeders, furriers, pet stores, restaurants, circuses, rodeos and all other businesses that use animals or produce or sell their products.

How AETA Became Law With So Little Opposition

On November 4, 2005 AETA was introduced in the House of Representatives. It was sponsored by Rep. Thomas Petri (R-WI). Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) is his colleague from the same state. There is a primate research lab at the University of Wisconsin that has been the target of protests. The primary proponent of this legislation was a group called Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition, which is made up primarily of drug companies and medical researchers like the National Association for Biomedical Research, Biotechnology Industry Organization, Boehringer Ingelheim, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Roche and Wyeth. Dr. Alex Hershaft, founder and president of FARM, points out most animal welfare groups seemed unaware of the bill until August, 2006.

But on March 30, 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a strong letter to members of Congress: “The AETA criminalizes First Amendment activities such as demonstrations, leafleting, undercover investigations, and boycotts. The bill is overly broad, vague, and unnecessary because federal criminal laws already provide a wide range of punishments for unlawful activities targeting animal enterprises.” By October 30, 2006, after AETA passed in the Senate, the ACLU wrote to members of the House of Representatives where the bill was still pending and suggested what it described as only “minor amendments”. The ACLU stated that it “does not oppose this bill”.

What happened? There was only an insignificant change made to the bill between March 30 and October 30, 2006.

The House Judiciary Committee held a brief hearing on May 23, 2006 before its Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. The chairman was Rep. James Sensenbrenner. No one from any animal rights or animal welfare groups was present or offered prepared statements. The witnesses at the hearing included a researcher from the University of Wisconsin, home of the primate research facility. The other witnesses were a drug company executive, a lawyer from the Justice Department, and a free lance reporter.

Several prepared statements were offered by medical researchers, the Fur Information Council of America, and persons purporting to document the so-called threat from animal rights extremists.

The assistant attorney general claimed AETA was necessary to protect “persons and entities that do business with [or are associated with] an animal enterprise”. The attorney claimed animal rights “extremists are engaged in a nationwide campaign to place law-abiding citizens in a reasonable fear of death or of serious bodily injury to themselves or their loved ones.” The attorney admitted the activities were already illegal under the existing Animal Enterprise Protection Act, 18 USC §43 or state law. He then stated “the [Justice] Department has found wide common ground with members of the Humane Society [of the United States] and the ACLU. We recently met with both groups. We all agree that any tactic or strategy of involving violence or threats of violence is not to be tolerated. On the other hand, we are committed to ensuring that the law has no chilling effect on lawful activities designed merely to persuade.” Not one Representative questioned the Justice Department attorney.

Then a researcher from the University of Wisconsin testified that she had been upset by harsh criticism and taunts directed at her by protesters of her experiments on primates. She claimed she was defamed by the protesters. She claimed she was afraid for her safety. She said she had heard animal activists threw rocks at windows of other researchers and destroyed their yards. She offered few specifics. She also did not say whether she called the police at any time to report these alleged acts. No one asked her any questions. The researcher ended her testimony by stating, “Working on animals is a privilege”.

Next up was an executive from the UK from Glaxosmithkline, a drug company. He claimed employees and their families received threats of violence because of that company’s relationship with Huntingdon Life Sciences, a medical lab that experiments on animals. He otherwise spoke mainly about violence against animal researchers in the UK. Again, no one on the subcommittee had any questions for this witness. He was followed by another Glaxosmithkline executive who discussed the already illegal death threats, vandalism and thefts allegedly committed by animal activists. Much of his testimony was a repeat of the first drug company executive.

The free lance reporter warned, "If this Committee wants surveillance, round-ups and convictions of animal activists, that’s already underway. Law enforcement has not proven the need for heavier-handed tactics. Property crimes are already punishable as so-called animal enterprise terrorism. This bill, though, further expands that sweeping category to include protests, boycotts, undercover investigations, whistleblowing and nonviolent civil disobedience. The bill criminalizes any activity against an animal enterprise or any company tangential to an animal enterprise that causes economic damage defined as including the loss of profits. That’s not terrorism, that’s effective activism. “Businesses exist to make a profit, and if activists want change, they have no choice but to tug at pursestrings. That principle guided the grape boycotts of the United Farm Workers, the lunch counter civil disobedience of civil rights activists and the divestment campaigns of antiapartheid groups. Those tactics all hurt profits, and those tactics, if directed at an animal enterprise, would all be considered terrorism under this legislation.

“Exceptions were made in the bill for losses from public reaction to information about an enterprise, but that’s not an adequate safeguard. Corporations could argue that undercover investigators and whistleblowers hurt profits beyond public reaction. Those activists may cause a financial loss because they received a salary or prompted extensive employee background checks or prompted additional security measures.

“Perhaps the greatest danger of this legislation, though, is that it will impact all animal activists, even those that never have to enter a courtroom. The reckless use of the word ”eco-terrorism” by corporations and the Government has already had a chilling effect, and this legislation will compound it. Through my reporting I’ve already heard the widespread fears of activists that they may soon be labeled terrorists, even for legal activity. They point to media smear campaigns by industry groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom, and many were stunned by full-page anonymous ads in both The New York Times and The Washington Post with a figure in a black mask labeling animal rights activists as terrorists.

“They are also keenly aware that the Department of Homeland Security does not list right-wing terrorists on the list of national security threats, as in the Congressional Quarterly article I brought today, but puts animal activists at the top of that list. “This legislation will add to this climate of fear and distrust, and it will force Americans to ask themselves, is it worth it? Is standing up for my beliefs really worth the risk of being labeled a terrorist? That is not a choice that anyone should have to make.”

AETA was not introduced in the Senate until September 8, 2006, just 3 weeks before it was passed in the Senate. It was introduced by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA).

Here is what Sen. Feinstein had to say about it: “The tactics used by animal rights extremists have evolved in the face of our current laws, and consequently, the scope of their terror is widening…. We need the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act to fight these tactics, including the latest trend of targeting any business and associate working with animal research facilities. “Just three months ago, extremist activists acting in the name of animal rights attempted to firebomb the home of a UCLA primate researcher. The home where they placed their bomb actually belonged to a 70-year-old neighbor of the scientist. Thankfully, the device did not ignite. But it did lead another prominent UCLA researcher to quit in fear. We must recognize that scientific research is not only a legitimate career, but also an invaluable facet of medical advancement, conducted by respectable professionals deserving our support. The deplorable actions of these eco-terrorists threaten to impede important medical progress in California and across the country. “Unfortunately, this type of activity has been going on for awhile. In August 2003, two bombs were placed at the Emeryville offices of Chiron Corporation, a pharmaceutical company in the Bay area that employs 4,400 employees as our nation’s 2nd largest manufacturer of flu vaccines….

 “Eco-terrorism has impacted universities and research facilities across California. As an example, between 2001 and 2005, faculty and staff at the University of California San Francisco engaged in animal research, or care of animals used in research, were targeted by a number of activists groups. Among other incidents, faculty and staff received threatening phone calls and messages, late night visits to their homes, death threats, and in one instance, a burning effigy was left on a researcher’s doorstep. The University has been forced to spend more than $2.5 million to increase security at its research facilities.”

The violent activities described by Sen. Feinstein are already clearly illegal under arson, AEPA and other laws. But Sen. Feinstein was also facing re-election.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and held a brief hearing on the bill. Frank Losey, a Washington lobbyists for breeders, has bragged that after the hearing, he gave to staffers a note suggesting "breeders" be included as animal enterprises under the AETA. And, breeders are protected in the law.

Because of Sen. Feinstein’s support, AETA was placed on a fast track with the agreement of both parties and scheduled with little notice for a vote on September 30, 2006, less than 3 weeks after it was introduced. There was no debate. It is not clear in the 3 weeks this bill was pending in the Senate that many Senators even read it.

On the day of the Senate vote on September 30, 2006, the ACLU convinced staffers to make a few changes including limiting the crime to damage to real or personal property. The changes did not prove to be significant.

In the meantime Dr. Alex Hershaft, also co-founder of Equal Justice Alliance, had organized national groups in opposition to AETA. See and

Congress was in recess from September 30-Nov. 9 for the midterm elections. There was an effort by national animal welfare and some civil rights groups during the recess to rally opposition to this bill. The ACLU had retreated from its earlier opposition to the bill, however.

When the House returned on Nov. 9, 2006, here is what happened: Late on Friday, Nov. 10, Rep. Sensenbrenner had AETA placed on the suspension calendar which basically means a vote would be taken without debate on the following Monday, November 13. Over the weekend animal welfare and civil rights groups learned of the maneuver and began mobilizing their supporters.

On Monday, November 13 it was announced matters on the suspension calendar would be taken up that evening at 6:30 p.m. Instead, Rep. Sensenbrenner maneuvered the bill to the floor for a vote in the middle of the day. He arranged for about 5 supporters to be present. At the time of the vote there were only 6 representatives present, 5 of whom were the supporters of the bill. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) spoke against the bill. Three representatives including Rep. Sensenbrenner spoke in favor of AETA. AETA passed in the House of Representatives on a voice vote by the 6 representatives present. No other representatives voted on the bill. For Dr. Hershaft’s account of what happened that day, click here.

President George W. Bush signed AETA into law on November 27, 2006.

From now on, we must be vigilant and take note of every animal-related bill that is introduced. We must be aware of the tactics and maneuvers of politicians and the interests they serve. We must make sure the animals are among those interests. For now, we must work to amend this law or challenge its constitutionality in the courts. For more on these efforts, go to,,