It was 4 o'clock in the morning when David Jentsch, a neuroscience professor at UCLA, awoke to a loud bang and the sound of his car alarm. He hurried to his bedroom window and saw the orange glow of his new Volvo luxury sedan burning in his yard.
He suspected immediately that it was the work of animal rights activists.
"Enough of my colleagues had been attacked that I had a feeling they were responsible," Jentsch said about the March 7 torching of his car. "Two days later the Animal Liberation Brigade took credit for it. The irony of the whole situation is that no one had ever approached me about my research before, not one harassing e-mail or phone call."
Jentsch, who experiments on monkeys and rodents in his studies on mental disorders like drug addiction and psychosis, is one of a growing number of victims in a renewed and intensified campaign by animal rights activists. In what law enforcement officials are calling a wave of militancy, groups like the Animal Liberation Front and another called The Justice Department are going after scientists personally, both at work and at home, and threatening the safety of their families.
"There is an upswing," said Laura Eimiller, a FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles. "What's really concerning is the tactics that are being used. Previously it was non-violent, mostly harassment or vandalism. Now we're seeing the increased use of incendiary devices to target individuals."
Over the past 18 months, there have been at least 39 criminal actions undertaken in the name of animal rights, according to data compiled by the Foundation for Biomedical Research, an advocacy group for researchers. That represents a significant rise from 2006 and 2007, when there were only 25 incidents.
Much of the recent activity has been focused in California, which has seen labs destroyed, scientists' cars firebombed, public officials' cars vandalized and animals kidnapped and then released into the wild. Activists have claimed to have sabotaged the cars of UCLA football players, and six masked activists burst into the home of a researcher at the University of California-Santa Cruz.
"A lot of activists are frustrated. They've exhausted the legal means, and they've decided to take it to the next level," said Jason Miller, a press officer with the North American Animal Liberation Front, which acts as a mouthpiece for the militant animal liberation movement but claims no direct affiliation with the groups themselves.
"As with any social justice movement, when met with resistance from the state, violence becomes inevitable. There is nothing unique about this movement."
In 2006, President Bush signed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which expanded federal jurisdiction over crimes against animal testing facilities to include attacks on persons and institutions that facilitate but are not directly involved in animal research, a group including financers and the suppliers of scientific equipment.
"If (an animal liberation group) saw a plumbing truck going into a research facility, they'd firebomb the plumbing company," said Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. "If they're going to go after the banks and the insurance companies, we're worried this will mean less resources for research."
Trull can run off a laundry list of medical developments made possible by animal testing. But activists, both mainstream and underground, maintain such research is not only unethical, but unreliable.
"The animals are not similar enough to humans to provide accurate results," said Miller. "I do not believe animals are here for us to use and exploit. When you're talking about drug addiction (research), I find that abhorrent that we’d take non-human animals roaming the wild and subject them to what I would consider torture."
In southern California, militant animal rights groups are already seeing some "success" in their efforts to stop research.
Dario Ringach, a neurology professor at UCLA who is developing a device to restore vision to the blind, suspended his research on monkeys in 2006 after what he said were repeated harassment of his family and an attack on a colleague's home. "They will go after people working with mice or even fruit flies," he said.
UCLA has seen 11 attacks on its facilities and faculty since 2006, with the home of one psychiatry professor flooded with a garden hose and then nearly set on fire by an incendiary device five months later.
The university has beefed up security, in some cases providing professors with 24-hour protection. Last week the school won a judgment from a Los Angeles County superior court judge prohibiting animal rights activists from coming with 50 feet of researchers' property during the day and 150 feet at night.
But drawing a distinction between legal protesters and the groups' violent members can be difficult.
Jentsch, who outraged animal rights activists when he led a rally in support of the scientists last month, said that most of the protesters outside his home on Sunday afternoon were were wearing masks and chanting slogans like "rot in hell." Such events have become so routine that he has drawn a chalk line on the street to mark the court-ordered boundary.
"I'm a little more sensible about looking over my shoulder now, but I'm not [going to] quit," he said.
"I'm not going to be a helpless victim. The work we do is critical research that society asks us to do, and there's this tiny group of people who decide they're going to set the agenda."
In recent years the FBI has increased its attention on animal rights activists and environmental groups, which they estimate have caused over $110 million in damage since 1979. While agents have achieved some success, with indictments against 30 individuals from 2005 to 2008, halting the attacks is a near impossible task.
"It's one of our biggest problems in terms of domestic terrorism. It's not just California, its everywhere," said Rick Kolko, an FBI spokesman. "Our best defense is to disrupt them, getting into these groups before these crimes occur."
Made up of independent cells spread across the United States and Europe with no centralized leadership, groups like the Animal Liberation Front are both deeply committed to their cause and difficult to trace, Miller said.
"There's no real leadership. Decisions are made by the group, which tend to be very loosely organized," he said. "Nobody really knows who else is in the organization."