Animal rights extremism—which the FBI has labeled the biggest domestic terrorism threat—has encountered a number of serious reverses recently. These reverses are a great victory for science, free inquiry and public health. In particular, Americans could learn from a popular movement in the UK that is standing up to the threats and intimidation of the animal "liberation" movement and asserting the moral arguments for animal testing.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
The poster child for animal liberation extremism has been Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a British-based firm that conducts experiments on animals largely in the field of toxicology protection. In April 1997 the firm was found to have breached animal protection laws in the UK and had its license revoked for three months. However, after that punishment was imposed a group called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) was started with the express aim of closing down HLS within three years. The organization claims to be committed to non-violent direct action, targeting not just HLS but anyone connected or doing business with it, whether they be a director of the firm or a cleaner doing contract work for it.
In February 2001, Brian Cass, the managing director of HLS, later honored by Queen Elizabeth II for services to medical research, was attacked by three men armed with pickaxe handles. Its marketing director, Andrew Gay, was attacked with a chemical spray that temporarily blinded him. After SHAC started using public records to threaten HLS shareholders, the company relocated its financial center to the state of Maryland.
SHAC supporters in the US have also been accused of harassment, intimidation, arson, trespass and vandalism. Eventually, the evidence became too hard to ignore and the US branch of the group and six of its members were indicted for inciting violence and terror, and for stalking. On March 2 they were found guilty, some on several counts. Some of the six face up to ten years in federal prison as a result. While denying any intent to injure, one of the defendants said in the trial that it was fine to throw rocks through someone's window as long as they were not home. SHAC has been condemned by people and groups of all political persuasions. One of the most powerful summaries and indictments of SHAC's method came from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which compared SHAC to anti-abortion extremists.
Despite this, SHAC had almost succeeded in its efforts to close HLS down. Animal rights extremists have moved on to target other organizations using equally despicable methods. For example, last year a British farm that bred guinea pigs for use in animal experiments pulled out of the business after the culmination of a long campaign against them when activists desecrated the grave of the owner's grandmother and "kidnapped" her body. The activists were tracked down and recently entered a plea of guilty to blackmail in relation to the desecration. The whereabouts of the remains, however, are still unknown.
Yet with such "successes" under their belts, it was inevitable that the extremists would set their targets higher. They found it in the shape of the most distinguished institution of learning in the world. Oxford University had decided to consolidate its dispersed facilities into one biomedical research center on South Parks Road alongside its other famous scientific centers. The new center would replace existing laboratories and at the same time upgrade them, thereby increasing the welfare of the animals involved. To the extremists, however, it was too good a target to miss and they resolved to make its construction impossible.
Threats were issued and the first contractor, Walter Lilly, pulled out of construction. SPEAK, the group co-ordinating activities against the new facility started to host demonstrations against it. It was during one of these on January 29 this year that a 16 year-old high school drop-out named Laurie Pycroft thought that enough was enough. He spontaneously organized a tiny counter-demonstration in favor of the benefits of animal research and with it Pro Test was born.
Coincidentally, the most infamous of all the animal rights extremist movements, the Animal Liberation Front, got involved at about the same time. In a press release dated February 2, the ALF announced:
"This is just the beginning of our campaign of devastation against ANYONE linked in ANY way to Oxford University. Every individual and business that works for the University as a whole is now a major target of the ALF. The University have [sic] made a crass decision to take us on and we will never let them win!
"This ALF team is calling out to the movement to unite and fight against the University on a maximum impact scale, we must stand up, DO WHATEVER IT TAKES and blow these fucking monsters off the face of the planet. We must target professors, teachers, heads, students, investors, partners, supporters and ANYONE that dares to deal in any part of the University in any way.
"There is no time for debate and there is no time for protest, this is make or break time and from now on, ANYTHING GOES.
"We cannot fail these animals that will end up in those death chambers.
"Be warned, Oxford University, this is only the beginning of our campaign. Everyone linked to your institution is right now being tracked down and sooner or later, they will be made to face the consequences of your evil schemes."
This instantly made legitimate targets of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and your present writer, among others. It also woke up about 18,000 highly intelligent students to the realization that they were now at risk of attack from a terrorist organization.
As a result, within a month of its founding, Pro Test was able to host a major rally in Oxford, with over 1000 people attending and addresses from Professor Tipu Aziz, Consultant Neurosurgeon and professor of neurosurgery at Oxford University, Professor John Stein, professor of Physiology at Oxford University, Dr Simon Festing, Executive Director of the Research Defense Society and Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West. Dr Harris spoke with passion and eloquence, telling the crowd:
"Several years ago I volunteered to be a human trialist of a potential new AIDS vaccine, developed here in Oxford. I know that would not have been possible without the use of animal models and safety testing in animals. I said at the time that animal research was vital if we are to conquer AIDS, TB and malaria, and every time politicians talk about their concern for the developing world and those diseases they should mention the role that animal research will play.
"My message to the extremists is that you will never win. Every vile action of harassment, intimidation, or violence undermines any legitimacy your cause ever had and strengthens the resolve of those of us who support the rule of law and the role of science to resist you and to speak out against you."
The tide appears to have turned. Laurie Pycroft has become a celebrity and his cause is treated sympathetically by the British media. The grass roots nature of the Pro Test movement bears out another thing Dr. Harris said, that the British public values and respects the work of medical researchers:
"My message to the scientists, researchers and students who carry out biomedical work using animals is that you are heroes—under paid , under-pressure and under-praised. You have always had my full public support and that of the vast majority of my constituents, of my parliamentary colleagues and of the British people. Your work is legitimate, necessary, carefully regulated and - where authorized—the only or best way to provide insight into the causes and therapies of human diseases. You are right. You are brave. You are valued."
The American public certainly respects and values the work of medical researchers here. As the SHAC convictions have shown, animal rights extremism is alive and well in the United States as well. While organizations that want to end animal testing continue to bask in celebrity adulation, and with protests very much in the news these days, the USA could do with a Pro Test movement of its very own.