When I first arrived in Oxford, about two and a half years ago, I found myself face to face with a very vocal and determined animal rights movement. Thriving on misinformation and intimidation–through their visible rallies and underhanded techniques of arson, grave robbing, and constant threats–they had stalled construction on Oxford’s new animal research building (a building designed to even further ensure humane conditions for research animals). And, they had effectively silenced the scientific community and the much larger portion of the population that supports animal research.
Then, two years ago, Pro-Test, a small organization made up primarily of Oxford students and researchers, took its pro-research message to the streets. Vowing to support scientific progress and not bow to intimidation, Pro-Test drew crowds of hundreds of supporters to its rallies in February and June 2006. These events were lively and spirited, but characterized mostly by a grave determination to face the threats ahead, and colored by both a sense of duty and fear.
But what a difference two years can make. Pro-Test marched again today, but the prevailing feeling this time seemed more one of resigned joy, of “mission accomplished”. Oxford hasn’t been the same since Pro-Test first stood up to the animal rights extremists: scientists more frequently stand up for their work, animal rights activists are less visible, and the new animal research building has been completed. In fact, researchers will be moving in within the next few weeks. The crowd wasn’t as large today (a couple hundred people)–but it didn’t have to be. Although protecting scientific progress will always require constant vigilance, this time the forces of science have won.
The rally started at noon today on Broad Street. Emcee Tom Holder kicked things off, and was soon followed by Laurie Pycroft, the founder of Pro-Test. Pycroft gave a victory speech, of sorts, but also summarized the importance of animal research. He noted that one day, hopefully, animal research will no longer be necessary, but that day is at least several decades away. Pycroft also said that Pro-Test had shown the animal rights extremists that “violence is not an acceptable way to conduct a political campaign.”
Pycroft was followed by David Priestman, a scientist in the Department of Pharmacology, who spoke about his own work and the importance of mouse knockout models. He noted that each year, about one billion animals are used for food in the UK. In contrast, only three million are used for research. Tom Holder then read a statement from the University of Oxford in support of Pro-Test.
Next up was Iain Simpson, another member of the Pro-Test committee, who gave another victory speech. He was followed by Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat and MP for West Oxford, who has been a strong supporter of Pro-Test from the beginning. I particularly respect Harris, because he has done a great job of balancing the need to stop the intimidation of scientists with the basic rights the animal rights protesters have to voice their opinions. He has cautioned the university and local police against coming down too hard on protesters and has lobbied to make sure they are able to protest with free speech rights fully intact. His sense of humor on full display, during his speech Harris introduced an “anti-testing card” which he suggested animal rights activists should carry around. The card said something like “I don’t agree with animal research, so I do not want to receive any treatments that have been tested on animals, including [long list of treatments]–basically anything except for homeopathy.” Zing.
The Pro-Test demonstration then left Broad Street toward the site of the new animal research lab, taking the same route that it did two years ago. As we marched, I heard many of the same chants:
What do we want? The Oxford Lab! When do we want it? Now!
Pro-science! Progress! Pro-Test!
Stand up for Science! Stand up for Research!
There were a couple of new ones, but they were a little awkward and didn’t have the same effect. Due to the nature of this rally–the smaller crowd and the reduced sense of urgency–the chants played a much diminished role, and were not yelled as enthusiastically.
Tom Holder speaks (and the new building can be seen in the top left corner)
Once we were at the site of the recently completed building, speeches resumed. First up were Tipu Aziz and John Stein, both Oxford University professors who use animal models for neuroscience research. Both spoke of the impact that Pro-Test and others have had by standing up for scientific research. Aziz noted that the European Parliament recently modified its hard line pledge against animal research. Closer to home, Stein said “your support was vital in changing the atmosphere so we could tell people why animal research is important.” Stein, like many others at the rally, also listed off just a small sampling of the many, many medical treatments developed through animal experimentation, including antibiotics, vaccines, transplants, etc.
Next up was Kevin Elliot who spoke about his medical condition, cervical spondylosis, which causes chronic pain and decreased mobility. He descibed the operation he would be undergoing soon to treat his condition, an operation, once again, only available because of past animal research. Then, after emcee Tom Holder gave a short speech about the significance of the day, the rally headed back to Broad Street for the final slate of speakers.
First up back at Broad Street was Frank Rothnie. He spoke from the perspective of a beneficiary of animal research, due to a car accident he was in several years ago. “I’m not special,” he said. “I’m just an ordinary guy in the street: like you. And, animal research is here for you.” Next, Tom Holder read what I can only describe as a very supportive statement from the Minister of Science on behalf of the UK government. After that, Helen Dale, a lawyer, spoke about what has impressed her the most about Pro-Test and the supporters of animal research in general: they have been so polite (in contrast to the animal rights protesters), almost to a fault.
Robin Lovell-Badge addressing the crowd
As things came to a close, Robin Lovell-Badge–head of the Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics division at London’s MRC National Institute for Medical Research–gave his perspective. He also spoke about the central role that animal research plays in moving both science and human medicine forward. In addition, he noted that science relies on openness, so it is imperative that the public is given accurate information about animal research, something that Pro-Test strives to do.
Finally, Tom Holder thanked those who made the rally possible, and Iain Simpson gave a few closing remarks. At the end of the day, I was once again struck by the difference in tone between the supporters of animal research and its opponents. This is all the more relevant today, as just this week the home of UCLA animal researcher Edythe London was subject to arson, less than four months after another attack on her house by animal rights extremists. This difference in tactics may partially explain Pro-Test’s incredible success, in contrast to the dwindling fortunes of the animal rights activists in Oxford, who seem to have alienated any popular support they once enjoyed. Compare this to what advocates of animal welfare can accomplish when they take a more positive approach, instead of relying on intimidation and misinformation. A textbook case is the humane society effectively shutting down a slaughterhouse last week where animals were being subjected to outrageous treatment. All they had to do was let the public know what was going on.
In a democracy, truth wins out in the long run. Here in Oxford, the supporters of animal research have been honest with the public and have turned the tide. So, until the animal rights extremists come to terms with the facts, they’ll be fighting a losing battle.