Britain's Other War on Terror Resisting the Animal Avengers

An entirely different sort of war on terror is being waged in Great Britain. Using bombs, character assassination and blackmail as their tools, opponents of animal testing have been terrorizing universities and research laboratories for years. But they are finally encountering resistance.

By Marco Evers


A macaque being used for experiments. Animal rights activists are using increasingly agressive methods to try to stop testing on animals.
DPA

A macaque being used for experiments. Animal rights activists are using increasingly agressive methods to try to stop testing on animals.

Sixteen-year-old Laurie Pycroft -- greasy hair, glasses, constantly exhausted from playing computer games -- was sitting in a café in Oxford one day when he saw yet another group of animal rights activists marching through the streets, shouting: "Stop the biomedical center!"

The city had been in a state of emergency for months. Cars had been demolished and a boathouse torched, all because Oxford University had announced plans to build a major laboratory where rodents, fish and monkeys would be sacrificed in the name of research. Pycroft took one look at the protestors, ran out of the café and shouted at the top of his voice: "Build the biomedical center! Build the biomedical center!"

It was unheard of. Many Oxford professors felt the same way, but few within their ranks dared voice their opinions. After the police had extracted Pycroft from a crowd of angry animal rights activists on that January day in 2006, the young man suddenly realized that he had found his calling: to campaign on behalf of science and against the terrorizing tactics of animal rights extremists.

Pycroft has two cats, Gloria and Charlie, and he says that he is very fond of his pets. But he also loves his grandfather, who lived to get to know his grandson because he was the recipient of heart valves that had been transplanted into his body from pigs. "People come first," says Pycroft.

He began his crusade by founding an organization called Pro-Test, to campaign on behalf of the kinds of animal experiments that are unavoidable. Students and professors quickly joined his group, and together they began staging public debates and counter-demonstrations. As the movement grew, Pro-Test's ranks swelled to the point where its protestors, sometimes numbering more than 1,000, would actually outnumber the animal rights protestors. Since then the house of Pycroft's parents, where he lives, has been under police protection.

There has also been a shift in the public mood in the country since then. After years of soul-searching, Great Britain, with its deeply entrenched love of animals (Britain's first animal protection law was enacted in 1822), has taken up arms against Europe's most fanatical opponents of animal experiments, enacting new laws and taking tough action against offenders.

Losing Popular Support

The British are waging a new war on terror, but this one is at home and is one in which they appear to be gaining the upper hand. When it comes to animal experiments, militant groups like the Animal Liberation Front, founded in 1976, have long enjoyed extensive support and a monopoly on opinion rarely questioned in public. Even when they resorted to extreme measures like setting fires or sending letter bombs, they could consistently bank on a silent majority's vague sense of guilt over the suffering of laboratory animals.

But this support is rapidly disappearing, thanks in part to Pycroft and Pro-Test, but also because as a result of their extreme actions the laboratory rats avengers have been marginalized, and some have even been imprisoned.

Judging by the level of security surrounding the construction site on South Parks Road, one could be forgiven for thinking that a US embassy is being built here. Barbed wire stretches across the top of the 10-foot fence surrounding the site, and there are video cameras everywhere. The basic structure of Oxford's new Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) has been built, but how close to completion the facility is and when the animals will be arriving remain closely guarded secrets. Judging by the speed with which security officers appear on the scene when someone stops on the street to take a picture, it can't be much longer. For months the construction workers on the project have appeared on the job with their faces masked. None of the construction companies involved ever advertised its role in the project by displaying its name or logo at the site. Trucks used in the project have no company logos or even license plates.

These precautions are not surprising, given the fact that animal rights activists have declared as the target of their attacks anyone at the university who is even indirectly associated with the project, from research assistants to literature professors to painters. They have spent hours and days holding demonstrations and sounding sirens in front of the university's libraries and classrooms. They have occupied company offices, destroyed equipment and engaged in character assassination, including publicly and falsely accusing individual university employees of pedophilia. When they disclosed the name of one of the construction companies involved in the biomedical center project, the company was so intimidated that it canceled all work. The construction site was abandoned for 17 months, because not a single company was willing to subject itself to the radical activists' fury.

Cambridge University had already capitulated on a similar project, a plan to build a primate research center, a few years earlier. The proposed center would have provided Alzheimer's and Parkinson's specialists with laboratories to conduct research using the brains of macaques, research considered indispensable for developing new treatments for both illnesses. But in 2004, after years of planning, the world-renowned university gave up the project. "We cannot build a Fort Knox," university officials said at the time.

A fortress is precisely what Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), one of Europe's largest animal research companies and the mortal enemy of the defenders of animal souls, is. On its heavily guarded grounds near Cambridge, HLS tests pharmaceutical substances on animals. But the company also prepares toxicological reports for household chemicals, environmental pesticides and food additives. It consumes tens of thousands of mice and rats each year, as well as smaller numbers of birds, rabbits, dogs and a few monkeys. But the regular attacks by animal rights activists have brought Huntingdon to the brink of ruin.

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