Animal rights activists enjoy a high-profile in American society, running well-organised campaigns with the help of much money and support from the showbusiness community. The kind of headlines which often make it round the world usually consist of actress Kim Basinger mounting a raid on an animal testing lab, or models flashing their breasts on city streets to protest against the wearing of fur. Dedicated, sincere individuals the animal welfare brigade may be, but are they as soft and cuddly as their clientele? Recent events, some involving violent attacks and others the employment of ethically dubious undercover work, have raised the question of whether their activities are in need of reining in. At the extreme end of the 'Free Fido' movement is the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), an underground group that is on the FBI list of domestic terrorist organisations, and which is thought to be behind most of the estimated 85 attacks on research labs in the past 10 years - attacks including bombs and arsons. It receives little publicity, but the organisation is probably the most successful of any US terrorist group in recent history, in terms of missions carried out. Its nebulous underground network, which evades law-enforcement with some success, means that only one major member has been jailed (let alone identified) for his part in ALF activities. Newsweek recently likened the ALF to the IRA, adding that such an analogy would make the much more mainstream group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), somewhat akin to Sinn Fein. PETA is the group which claims Kim Basinger as its public relations coup, but which also boasts an A-list of Hollywood sponsors. The annual US$12 million (HK$92.9 million) budget gives it amazing power and reach, given the relative narrowness of its mission. One unpalatable side of PETA is that it privately condones and sometimes publicly justifies the violent acts carried out by the ALF, without taking moral responsibility for them. PETA has strong links to the ALF, for which it makes no apologies. It has paid the legal fees of ALF members arrested by police, and its chief, Ingrid Newkirk, recently backed its direct-action approach, saying: 'I wish every person would get up and break into a lab.' PETA is, however, very much the acceptable face of the animal rights movement - acceptable, that is, to those who do not attract its ire. It rarely gets any more violent than following the famous Oscar Meyer wiener (hot dog) promotional van around the country and protesting nearby against meat-eating. Often, the worst one can say about PETA activists is that they have a appalling lack of taste; take, for example, the tossing of a dead raccoon on to the lunch table of one fur-loving New York fashion magazine editor, or the creation of a print advert (which most papers refused to run) comparing the gruesome murders in the O J Simpson case to human beings' treatment of their furry friends. But the unseen part of PETA's work is the part which has come under closest legal scrutiny recently. It involves going undercover into medical research centres to document what goes on. Its most renowned sleuth, a 31-year-old stalwart called Michelle Rokke, has probed many establishments by lying her way inside, winning jobs as a security guard, lab assistant and even a cleaner. Once within sight of the animals, she dons thick glasses, which conceal within the frame a tiny camera, with which the unlikely spy has made hours of video tapes. Using Ms Rokke's findings, PETA has gone public with accusations of animal cruelty against several laboratories, all of whom have to deal with subsequent media attention, the scrutiny of government regulators, anonymous death threats, and often a loss of business. But the organisation has just had its mettle severely tested by one laboratory chief who - when subjected to PETA's allegations - fought back, in the best American traditions, with a lawsuit. The centre, Huntingdon Life Science of New Jersey, lost several key clients and more than US$1 million (HK$7.73 million) in business after PETA released videotapes of it mistreating monkeys, including, it appeared, performing surgery on simians that were not completely anaesthetised. The group also said dogs were having their legs broken in order to test out a drug designed to treat osteoporosis. After the revelations, Proctor and Gamble, which employed Huntingdon to do the monkey research in the search for a migraine drug, pulled its business, not because it believed the accusations, but because it is commercially suicidal for a conglomerate to be associated with suggestions of animal cruelty. Most companies subjected to such PETA protests do not respond, but Huntingdon did. It filed a civil lawsuit under the infamous RICO statutes usually deployed to prosecute drug traffickers and mobsters. Its case was that PETA was guilty of racketeering in using underhand methods to extort the laboratory. Huntingdon almost had its day in court. In preliminary hearings, the judge cast doubt on the veracity of Ms Rokke's hidden-camera evidence, suggesting the tapes had been unfairly edited, and castigated her for making off with confidential company documents. Eventually, the two sides settled, and both managed to claim victory. The lab dropped the case in return for PETA dropping the allegations and ceasing to publicise the videotapes. The animal rights group undoubtedly plays an important role - who knows what horrors laboratory workers would commit on their innocent victims were they not forever in fear of being subjected to PETA's unforgiving spotlight. Even in the Huntingdon case, the technicians were clearly guilty of harsh handling, at the very least. But do PETA's ends justify the means? In America's liberal legal climate, the temptation is to cut such activist groups rather too much slack in how they conduct their research, not to mention their sometimes cavalier approach to pointing the public finger. In a nation where defamation is extremely difficult to litigate, there is little risk for organisations like PETA in rushing to make a judgment and trumpeting their cause via the media. As a result, firms on the receiving end - including ones that merit serious monitoring - end up judged guilty until proven innocent. The research community maintains, of course, that while PETA saves a few dogs or rats, its activities inhibit the development of important drugs that might save the lives of humans. It is doubtful, given the lucrative bottom line of the pharmaceutical industry, the bosses ever let a few dogged activists impede their research - or profits - for long. If PETA keeps these industries under public scrutiny, all well and good. But who polices the policemen?