Animal rights extremists—whom the FBI has labeled America’s biggest domestic terrorism threat—have 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 Britain that is standing up to the threats and intimidation of the animal ”liberation” movement and asserting the moral arguments for animal testing.
The poster child for animal liberation extremists 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 British animal protection laws and had its license revoked for three months. However, after that punishment was imposed a group of animal rights activists founded a gang called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) with the express aim of closing down HLS within three years. SHAC claims to be committed to non-violent direct action, targeting not just HLS but anyone connected or doing business with it—whether a director of the firm or a cleaner doing contract work for it.
In February 2001, HLS Managing Director Brian Cass—who was later honored by Queen Elizabeth II for services to medical research—was attacked by three men armed with pickaxe handles. HLS 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 United States have also been accused of harassment, intimidation, arson, trespass, and vandalism. Eventually, the evidence became too hard to ignore and the U.S. 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 10 years in federal prison. While denying any intent to injure, one of the defendants said in the trial that it was fine to throw rocks through somebody’s window as long as no one was home. SHAC has been condemned by people and groups from across the political spectrum, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, which compared SHAC to abortion clinic bombers.
Despite this, SHAC nearly succeeded in its efforts to close HLS down. Animal rights extremists have moved on to target other organizations using equally despicable methods. One egregious case happened 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. However, the whereabouts of the remains remain unknown.
Yet with such “successes” under their belts, it was inevitable that the extremists would set their targets higher—so they went after the world’s most distinguished institution of higher learning. 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. The first contractor, Walter Lilly, pulled out of construction after SPEAK, the group coordinating activities against the new facility, began hosting demonstrations against it. It was during one of these demonstrations that on January 29 this year, a 16 year-old high school dropout named Laurie Pycroft thought that enough was enough. He spontaneously organized a small counterdemonstration in favor of the benefits of animal research and with it Pro Test was born (http://www.pro-test.org.uk/).
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 f***ing 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.
Apparently, this made legitimate targets of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and your present writer, among others. It also woke up about 18,000 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 1,000 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, 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 grassroots 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—underpaid, 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, America could do with a Pro Test movement of its own.