The Animal Research War
by P. Michael Conn and James V. Parker
Palgrave Macmillan: 2008, 224 pages.
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In a dark room, buried in a nondescript building somewhere in London, an orderly array of new trainees sits silently, listening intently as a senior police official delivers a security briefing. Clicking through slide after slide of photos of activists, extremists, and terrorists, the official carefully explains who each person is, what organization(s) he or she is associated with, and what level of threat that person poses. All of this would probably look like business as usual if security is your day job. But, this audience isn’t made up of new police recruits: these are first-year graduate students, attending a course that’s mandatory to conduct animal research in the UK.
Of course, this security briefing is just a small part of this course, which in part fulfills the requirements set by the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. More fundamental to its mission is the training these students will receive in animal handling and welfare–one of the many safeguards put in place in the UK, like in the US and elsewhere, to ensure that animal research is carried out as humanely as possible. However, if one considers that just 60 miles down the road, in Oxford–where many of these students will be carrying out their graduate research–animal rights extremists are a real threat to animal researchers and anyone associated with them, this whole endeavor seems a little less outlandish.
Until it was completed just a few months ago, construction workers at the new biomedical research building in Oxford arrived and left each day by secret convoy and wore full face masks to protect their identities. The menacing grey barrier that they worked behind–complete with razor wire and anti-climb pain–still stands today, long after completion. Throughout the work, the identity of building’s contractor was a closely-guarded secret (the original contractor had pulled out, stalling construction for 16 months).
As reactionary as this may appear, it’s just a rational response to a constant barrage of intimidation at Oxford that has at times escalated to arson and letter bombs. And, although Oxford has become a focal point for the animal rights movement, it’s far from unique, as demonstrated by the tales told in The Animal Research War, coauthored by P. Michael Conn and James V. Parker. “War” might sound like a strong word to use here, but after reading account after account of intimidation and destruction, it’s clear that the animal rightists are fighting a one-sided campaign of terror–publicly painting animal researchers as profit-driven sadists and destroying reputations, lives’ works, and millions of dollars of property in the process.
Delivering this narrative are scientist P. Michael Conn and communicator James V. Parker, both of the Oregon National Primate Research Center. Conn opens the book with his own tale of intimidation faced at the hands of animal rights extremists. As associate director of the Primate Research Center, he has been a constant target of animal rightists. In the opening vignette, he is rushed onto a plane after being followed to the boarding gate by angry activists. These same activists had just launched a coordinated campaign of lies and intimidation that had derailed his finalist interview for an administration position at the University of South Florida. As the authors go on to demonstrate, Conn’s experience is not unusual and is even relatively minor compared to some.
A common tactic of the animal rights extremists is to take the fight to the researchers’ homes, involving their families and neighbors. They publicize the scientists’ personal information, target their neighbors with misinformation designed to turn them against the researchers, hold disruptive demonstrations in front of their houses, and even deliver death threats to them and their families.
These actions have consequences, and the activists have sometimes succeeded in getting researchers to drop promising avenues of research–in hopes that they can once again lead normal lives. Each of these might be a “victory” for the animal rights movement, but each is a loss for the countless others who might have one day benefited from that research, from AIDS patients to stroke victims and everyone in between. And, this is isn’t even as bad as it gets, as UCLA researcher Edythe London found out this year, when in the span of less than four months her house was attacked twice–first by flooding then by arson.
These aren’t the actions of a few isolated individuals, but are instead the product of an intricate and interconnected web of different animal rights organizations. The authors devote a significant portion of this book to making sense of this web, and they show that the web sometimes reaches into high places–like money flowing directly from PETA to the ecoterrorist organization ELF (Earth Liberation Front), for example. And, I believe that it is here and in the stories of the researchers targeted by these organizations where the true value of The Animal Research War lies. Scientists need to know what they’re up against, and any potential sympathizers of these organizations should be aware of just what they’re supporting.
Another important contribution that this book makes is that from the outset, the authors make the very important distinction between animal welfare and animal rights. Although these two terms are all too frequently used interchangeably (and I’ll admit that I’ve even fallen into this trap on occasion), they have very distinct meanings. Animal welfare describes our responsibility to care for animals in a way that minimizes pain and suffering. This is a fundamental value in our society that only true deviants would stray from. Animal rights, on the other hand, describe an extreme ideology postulating that animals possess inherent rights and that humans should not use animals for any purpose, including for food, clothing, transportation, or research. Although I haven’t stressed the importance of language and terminology as much as I should, in my previous writing I have made the related point that animal rights activists are not concerned with improving the conditions of laboratory animals, but instead their goal is to eliminate animal research altogether. It’s not that they place a particular significance on animal research as opposed to the use of animals for food–it’s just that animal research is an easier target. Regardless, confusion of animal rights and animal welfare plays into the hand of the animal rights activists, equating their extreme goals with values we all share. The authors made a good choice in emphasizing the importance of language and terminology from the start, and it’s certainly something that all of us–myself included–should be cognizant of.
Beyond this, The Animal Research War goes on to explore the philosophical underpinnings of the animal rights movement, to make the case for animal research, and to tackle some common misperceptions. Interlaced throughout is commentary that at times seems unnecessary–especially in the discussion highlighted above about the tactics of the animal rights extremists, where their actions tend to speak for themselves. Despite this, the book is still well-worth a read, especially if you’re interested in some of the topics often discussed here. And, if you’re not so familiar with the topic, hopefully at the very least a picture will emerge of researchers motivated dually by a love of discovery and a desire to alleviate human–and animal–suffering being unfairly targeted by an organized and underhanded movement that destroys reputations as well as property and at times severely hinders important scientific work.
Although there are few positives in a discussion of animal rights extremism, the authors end on an optimistic note: Pro-Test. In response to the intimidation described at the beginning of this post, the grassroots organization Pro-Test rose up in 2006 and has organized several successful and effective marches in support of animal research. It certainly helped change the tide against the animal rightists in a very palpable way here in Oxford, and hopefully it will serve as a model elsewhere. Although the authors of The Animal Research War focus only on Laurie Pycroft, the founder of Pro-Test, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there were many people that helped make Pro-Test a success. Among those were Tom Holder, who’s now advocating for animal research in the US and many, many others, including several students and a handful of Oxford scientists (you can see the bios of the current committee here). If there is a bright spot in the animal research war, it’s what Pro-Test has done in Oxford, and just as Conn and Parker ended their book there, hopefully similar actions will help bring the conflicts elsewhere a little bit closer to peaceful resolution as well.