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First in a three-part series.

WATERLOO, Iowa --- Irreverent pundits found a fun topic to roast last week when someone poured red paint on the famous butter cow, a tradition at the Iowa State Fair since 1911.

A group, Iowans for Animal Liberation, claimed responsibility --- and quickly became an object of ridicule.

"Fake activists throw fake blood on fake cow," one writer scoffed on Twitter.

Another posed a not-too-serious question.

"Animal rights group paints 'Freedom for all!' on the Iowa butter cow. Can butter cows even survive in the wild?"

Other messages were more aggressive.

"Just poured bacon grease on our lettuce and herb garden. Take that, animal liberation group."

The incident at the fair is a mild example of the mind-set and tactics employed by extreme animal rights groups --- like Animal Liberation Front --- and ecoterrorism organizations, such as Earth Liberation Front.

"We hid inside the Agriculture Building and emerged after closing. After dismantling the lock to the refrigerated case housing the Butter Cow with a screwdriver, we doused the entire butter sculpture in red paint," Iowans for Animal Liberation said in a prepared statement delivered anonymously. "The paint represents the blood of 11 billion animals murdered each year in slaughterhouses, egg farms and dairies."

For law enforcement agencies, agribusiness companies and livestock producers, the "bloody" butter cow is a reminder of the need for vigilance. Advocates of extreme animal rights positions are committed to what they describe as "direct action" and "monkey wrenching."

But the law defines those acts as intimidation, harassment, trespassing, vandalism, arson and terrorism.

"People look at something like that as a funny event, but we look at it more like a terroristic act," said Chickasaw County Sheriff Todd Miller.

'Sporadic'

Mike Kitsmiller is a supervisory agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation's office in Cedar Rapids. He is also a member of the agency's Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The butter cow attack is probably not the start of a trend, but it also likely won't be the last in Iowa.

"It's very sporadic. The actions they take are very few and far between --- knock on wood --- and I'm not challenging them to come out," Kitsmiller said.

Even so, the FBI routinely looks into possible crimes by animal rights groups.

"They come up every couple of months. ... We get something that may appear to be linked with that kind of activity," he said.

Fires at hog confinement operations or in barns and mayhem at rural construction sites trigger suspicion, for instance.

"We're going to take it seriously until we know it's not a true threat," Kitsmiller said.

Scrutiny is warranted based on ALF's and ELF's histories.

Bite Back, a magazine and website based in West Palm Beach, Fla., purportedly offers a venue for ALF's followers to share details about their adventures. The website describes 33 incidents in July and August. Of those, 13 were in the United States. One was at the Iowa State Fair.

"Bite Back does not publish news of actions in which the intent is to physically harm someone," according to a disclaimer on its website. But the reports frequently describe dangerous activities that could maim or kill.

Here are some examples

July 2, 2013 --- USA: FAST FOOD CHAINS TARGETED

"On the night of June 30th, three Molotov cocktails where thrown at a Burger King location in addition to two last week. Though the fires from the Molotovs failed to destroy the building, a valid act of direct defiance was still committed and deserves acknowledgement."

July 3, 2013 --- Sweden: WARNING FOR FUR FARMER

"The night of June 25, the parents of Thom Olsson (who just start building a mink farm in Hasslosa Petersborg ... got two unlit firebombs in their mailbox. See this as a warning. If you continue cooperate with your son, then next time those Molotovs will be thrown through your bedroom window. Burning!"

July 17, 2013 --- Germany: ELF TARGETS AUTO DEALER

"The last night we visited a Ford store in Berlin, we left a package with a fake bomb and a message. 'This sick infatuation with life's destruction, this grotesque embodiment of decay, a new world will rise from this disfunction (sic), when the institutions of oppression are laid to waste."

July 29, 2013 --- Sweden: AXES THROWN THROUGH WINDOW

"Thom Olsson has still not withdrawn his application to start a mink farm outside Skara. During the night of July 25 two axes were thrown through the windows of his uncle."

Targets

Animal rights extremists have targeted entities closer to home.

In 2000, someone released 14,000 animals from Earl Drewelow's mink farm near New Hampton, and a year later waterfowl, pigeons and mink were let go from farms in Hamilton and Mills counties.

In 2002, activists released 1,200 mink on a farm near Waverly.

Perhaps the most notorious incident happened in November 2004. Masked individuals entered a psychology research area in a building at the University of Iowa. The group took about 400 pigeons, rats and mice, smashed computers and poured acid on documents. Officials estimated damage at about $500,000.

Four days after the attack, ALF adherents emailed messages to media outlets from computers in the university's main library and law library, according to federal court documents. The messages included names of Iowa faculty members and their spouses, home addresses, phone numbers and email addresses as well as names of graduate students and lab assistants.

Though he no longer raises mink, Harvey Drewelo, Earl's son, still knows people in the business. He takes such threats seriously. He and his father lost thousands of dollars during the 2000 incident in Chickasaw County.

"They're no good S.O.Bs. Instead of giving them one or two years, they should lock them up for 15," Drewelow said.

When he visits farms, Drewelow goes prepared.

"I just keep a loaded shotgun in the truck when I go down there," he said.

But he declined to talk about what precautions active fur farmers employ.

"Let's just say we're kind of planning for it. You've got to keep your guard up on that stuff," he added. "... We're on the lookout all the time for them. We have no sympathy for them."

Recent events

The ALF operates through essentially independent cells, according to the FBI's Kitsmiller. As the ALF websites boast, anyone who takes up a crowbar or bolt cutters can claim affiliation.

"One of the trademarks of this group is that it doesn't have centralized leadership," Kitsmiller said.

The FBI is able to collect intelligence on "pockets of individuals" in Iowa and "trip wires" are in place to raise alerts, according to Kitsmiller.

"We've got people in the community that report to us about actions. We know that those groups are here," he said.

Officials can also discern likely targets. Recently, for instance, Kitsmiller said agents spoke with local law enforcement officials and met with representatives of Responsible Transportation, a processing plant in Sigourney that had announced intentions to slaughter horses.

Suspected animal rights activists started a fire at a similar meat processing facility in Roswell, N.M., in July.

Responsible Transportation on Tuesday dropped its plans after a federal judge issued an injunction against slaughtering horses.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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