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Vandals trash Bucks nursery, bash monkey business bid
Rampage wrecks pricey plants, racks up tens of thousands of dollars in damage.
By Pamela Lehman
Of The Morning Call
Vandals who might have ties to a radical animal rights group caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage overnight Thursday to a Quakertown area nursery that wanted to house 500 medical research monkeys.
The intruders overturned and destroyed about 1,000 peonies, including some rare breeds. They poured paint stripper on two vehicles and spray-painted graffiti on buildings and greenhouses at Peonyland, 475 Church Road, Richland Township.
They wrote phrases -- such as ''F--- with primates, get f---ed by us. ALF''; ''the ALF is watching''; and ''this will just be the start''
-- on greenhouses and storage garages at the business owned by the Hsu family, which now is uncertain whether it will continue the kennel plans.
ALF refers to the Animal Liberation Front, an extremist animal rights group that has claimed responsibility for hundreds of instances of property damage and acts of domestic terrorism nationwide in recent years, authorities said.
''This is considered domestic terrorism,'' said David W. Zellis, Bucks County first assistant district attorney. ''Apparently, these groups have embarked on this type of activity nationwide.''
The incident is under investigation by Richland Township police and a joint terrorism task force of agents from the FBI and other federal agencies.
ALF, which operates anonymously, claims on its Web site that it ''carries out direct action against animal abuse in the form of rescuing animals and causing financial loss to animal exploiters, usually through the damage and destruction of property.''
The organization claims its short-term goal is to save as many animals as possible and ''directly disrupt the practice of animal abuse,'' while its long-term objective is to ''end all animal suffering by forcing animal abuse companies out of business.''
In an anonymous e-mail forwarded to The Morning Call, ALF claimed responsibility for the Peonyland vandalism, saying the group visited the business and ''entered several greenhouses and completely trashed them, dumping hundreds and hundreds of bushes and making a mess of the place. We also poisoned over a hundred planted bushes
-- have fun finding out which ones, Hsu.''
The organization in the e-mail warns owner Michael Hsu to ''drop your plans for a primate prison.'' ''If you imprison so much as one monkey to sell to a lab we will make you pay dearly. We are watching you
Plans in limbo
Community opposition has been growing to Hsu's plans to open a commercial kennel at the 47-acre business, which is co-owned by Hsu's father, Chao.
The kennel would house up to 500 monkeys until they are shipped to medical research laboratories. The monkeys are used to test treatments and find cures for diseases such as AIDS and Alzheimer's, Michael Hsu said.
He said he wasn't sure if the vandalism would deter the kennel plans, which were withdrawn from Thursday's agenda for the Richland Township Planning Commission after Michael Hsu asked for more time to review documents the township sent him in response to his application.
''I can't say right now whether or not we'll continue,'' Michael Hsu said Friday. ''If you are an extremist who does this and claims to be an animal lover, you're not a lover of humanity.''
The monkeys would be shipped from a supply company in Beijing and would be tested for tuberculosis, according to the development application, which lists Chao Hsu and Susan Hsu as co-applicants.
The monkeys are not mistreated, Michael Hsu said.
''If these animals aren't treated properly, the research won't be valid,'' he said. ''We treat animals with respect and dignity.''
Michael Hsu said he doesn't have a damage estimate because many of the unique peonies
-- some of which were to be donated to the Smithsonian Museum and aren't sold to the public
-- are priceless. The business is insured.
Peonyland specializes in field- and container-grown tree peonies from imported Chinese stock. The fluffy, bright-colored flowers can take years to mature. Tree peonies can generally live 150 to 250 years.
The vandals broke into two greenhouses and overturned hundreds of potted plants, some of which weigh more than 20 pounds.
''We think after awhile, they just got tired and stopped,'' Michael Hsu said of the vandals. ''You can't put an estimate on how much these are worth because how can you put a price on the amount of time involved?''
As he surveyed piles of uprooted peonies and mounds of trampled dirt, Michael Hsu said his staff would work to save as many of the plants as possible. Once the roots are exposed, the plants often die, he said.
He said some of the plants take a decade to mature.
Richland Township police Chief Larry Cerami said the department is concerned ALF may target the Hsus again.
''These are animals that claim to act on behalf of monkeys, but to me, they have no credibility,'' Cerami said. ''This group may have a legitimate point with the treatment of animals, but criminal behavior is not the way to express it.''
Jenna Conroy, who rents an apartment on the property, said her car also was struck by the vandals. She said a thick liquid, possibly paint remover, was poured over her car, and the vandals may have attempted to set it on fire.
Conroy said it will cost at least $4,000 to repair the damage. She said she was walking her dog near the property about 11:30 p.m. Thursday, but didn't see or hear anything.
''I knew absolutely nothing about any of this,'' she said. ''I'm someone who is completely innocent, and they targeted me.''
Various buildings, sidewalks and at least one vehicle also were spray-painted with obscenities.
Hundreds of criminal acts
Jerri Williams, spokeswoman for the FBI's Philadelphia branch, said the bureau is assisting Richland Township police. ALF is no stranger to the bureau, she said.
''They are a very loose group that anyone who wants to say they are affiliated with ALF can say they're ALF,'' Williams said. ''Its stated goal is to end the abuse and exploitation of animals.''
She said ALF members generally use criminal activities such as vandalism, assault, large-scale animal releases and destruction of property, often through arson or fire bombings.
The FBI sees more ALF activity on the West Coast in California and Washington, but the organization meets in the Philadelphia area, she said.
Since the late 1970s, the FBI has attributed more than 1,200 criminal acts to extremist animal rights groups, many claimed in the name of ALF.
Dr. Jerry Vlasak, a spokesman for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, said that from the description of the Peonyland vandalism, it appears as though the damage was committed by ALF.
''It's the type of stuff they typically do,'' he said.
Vlasak's group, which is based in Canoga Park, Calif., is not affiliated with the Animal Liberation Front, but was established to serve as the public face of the radical animal rights movement. If people from ALF identified themselves, Vlasak said, they could be arrested.
Vlasak, a surgeon who formerly worked in medical research, said ALF was formed in Great Britain in the 1970s and soon established a presence in the United States.
Typically, he said, ALF members belong to a loose confederation of tiny cells that mobilize when they see the need.
''These are compassionate people who are willing to risk their lives or freedom for animals,'' Vlasak said.
He said ALF cells have committed hundreds of acts of vandalism and arson, causing some $110 million in damage. Vlasak said the Peonyland vandalism fits the ALF mode of operation because the facility had not yet been occupied by animals.
ALF members are rarely caught and charged, he said. Over the years, he said, law enforcement agencies have largely been unable to infiltrate ALF � mostly because the group adheres to a strict code of secrecy.
One alleged ALF activist who is facing charges is Peter Daniel Young, 27, who is being held in Madison, Wis. Authorities say Young freed 7,000 minks from five fur farms in Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin in 1997.
Young was a fugitive until March when he was arrested on a shoplifting charge in San Jose, Calif., according to The Press reports. He was extradited Monday to Wisconsin, where he pleaded not guilty in federal court. Federal authorities identified Young as a member of ALF.
'Not common criminals'
Vlasak said ALF members should not be regarded as terrorists.
''These people are not common criminals,'' he said. ''They have very strong philosophical and ideological beliefs. They are not trying to hurt innocent people in skyscrapers. They hurt organizations, but these organizations are hurting animals.''
Vlasak said there is no overall leader or governing board of ALF, and the group has never published a guide or handbook that would instruct activists how to commit radical acts. Usually, he said, activists read news reports of other incidents and adopt the techniques reported by the media into their own schemes.
The AP reported that a recent Department of Homeland Security internal document listed ALF as among the groups that potentially could support al-Qaida in domestic terrorism.
The AP reported the FBI is investigating a number of incidents over the past year that ALF claims its members committed against Manhattan-based Forest Laboratories. Forest, which employs 3,000 people in several Long Island communities, specializes in medicines for depression, anxiety, Alzheimer's and hypertension.
Richland Township Supervisor Chairman Rick Orloff said the township has yet to determine whether the proposed kennel is a proper use for the site. That will be worked out in time, Orloff said.
''Whether it's a good idea or not to have the monkey business in Richland Township, no one is licensed to go and [deface] someone's property,'' he said.
Officials will allow the proposal to proceed according to township rules before publicly speaking on Michael Hsu's proposed operation, Orloff said. He conceded that the use Peonyland is proposing may appear undesirable on first glance.
''It doesn't give anyone the right to act like a vigilante,'' Orloff said ''When you hear it it sounds bad. It may be bad. That remains to be seen. I think all applicants should be given due process.''
Joan Sullenberger, an opponent of the proposed kennel who lives near Peonyland on Church Road, said she is concerned about noise, smell and the possibility of monkeys escaping.
Sullenberger said Friday she's frightened by the thought of vandals sneaking onto the Hsus' property.
''It really cheapens our objective to try and take care of things in a mature manner and the legal way,'' she said. ''I wouldn't wish this on anyone, and I think it's a shame.''
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Reporters Hal Marcovitz and Dalondo Moultrie contributed to this story.