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.
'Your Life Is in Danger'
Repeated bomb scares and the resulting evacuations are the least of HLS's problems. Employees have been secretly photographed and their photos published on the Internet. Some have found explosives under their cars. CEO Brian Cass, now 60, was assaulted and beaten in front of his house by three attackers using tear gas and clubs.
The members of a group called SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) threaten anyone who cooperates with HLS, from cleaning services to couriers to banks, with similar treatment. The group's intimidation tactics have been tremendously successful, turning HLS into a pariah in the business world. "It's as if we were radioactive," says Cass. Other businesses no longer dare to be openly associated with the company. HLS has no bank account, no insurance policy, no auditors and no investors willing to identify themselves as such. The British government has jumped in to provide the company, with annual sales of €93 million, with the most basic services. HLS has had to build its own laundry facilities, its own cafeteria and its own security service.
"Your life is in danger whenever you go to your car after working in the torture chamber." These were the words that activist Julia Didrikson, 43, wrote in one of her mass e-mails to HLS employees. In another missive, she threatened: "Don't even think that your children are safe, if you have any. It doesn't take us long to find out where they go to school and where they live." In late September, Didrikson was sentenced to five months in prison for making the threats. When she was taken into custody she insisted: "But I'm just a harmless animal lover."
Donald Currie, a 41-year-old, unemployed psychiatric nurse turned bomb builder, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. It was only by accident that he didn't kill anyone. Mark Taylor, 39, began a four-year prison sentence in March. As a member of SHAC, Taylor was responsible for occupying the offices of companies linked to HLS. In a typical campaign, he and a dozen other activists, all wearing skull masks, would burst into an office and shout "murderers" at the employees. Some of the companies he and his fellow activists raided were so intimidated that they promptly cut off all ties to Huntingdon.
Radical animal rights activists have also targeted thousands of ordinary shareholders of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. In letters to the shareholders, the activists threatened that if they did not sell their shares they would find their names and addresses plastered all over the Internet.
In many British cities, police officers now take action against illegal stands animal rights activists have set up in pedestrian zones. Using horrifying photographs, many of them very old, the unlicensed activists collect money and signatures for petitions to combat animal experiments.
The stands are apparently lucrative. According to the police, some have taken in as much as €115,000 a year. But investigators say that the petitions usually end up in the trash, while the money pays for criminal activities like SHAC's acts of sabotage.
In May, in a campaign dubbed "Operation Achilles," 700 police officers raided dozens of addresses in Great Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands, arresting 32 people aged 19 to 68. Nine were charged with extortion or other crimes. Among them were many senior members of the animal rights movement, including Greg Avery, the co-founder of SHAC. Avery, who goes on trial next summer, will likely be sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
As a result of the increased pressure, the number of violent attacks has declined drastically this year, but the movement is by no means dead. Although Huntingdon still keeps the names of its customers a closely guarded secret, the news leaked out that Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis allegedly uses HLS's services.
'Democracy Is in Danger'
The response came in late August, when a group calling itself the Animal Rights Militia (ARM) claimed that it had put poison in hundreds of tubes of "Savlon," an antiseptic ointment made by Novartis. Many parents use the ointment to treat their children's minor cuts and scrapes. Thousands of tubes were taken off retail shelves. Although none of the alleged poison was found, even many animal lovers showed little sympathy for a group that had been willing to threaten harm to children.
The ARM is no stranger to publicity stunts that have backfired. In October 2004, ARM activists robbed the grave of Gladys Hammond, 83, and kidnapped the remains of her body. She had been dead eight years. Their goal was to blackmail Hammond's son-in-law, Christopher Hall, and force him to give up his involvement in a business that raised guinea pigs for Huntingdon's laboratories. After being the target of animal rights campaigns for years, Hall finally gave in to their demands.
When the body was finally found a year and a half later, in May 2006, Hall re-buried his mother-in-law. Four arrests were made in the case, and three of those arrested had already been convicted of similar prior offences. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to 12 years.
Tipu Aziz is a neurosurgeon and Parkinson's researcher at Oxford. He is one of little more than a handful of British scientists who, despite what he calls "a climate of fear," have spoken openly for years about the need for animal experiments.
Aziz's outspokenness has resulted in his name being included on Internet death lists, and he pays careful attention whenever he receives packages with unknown return addresses. But he insists that he will not allow himself to be muzzled and that he has nothing be ashamed of. Besides, he adds, democracy itself is in jeopardy when people no longer dare to talk about their convictions.
Aziz will soon move into a small office in Oxford's big new laboratory on South Parks Road. Once there he will use specific substances to artificially induce severe Parkinson's disease in "two to four" macaques each year. He will then attempt to alleviate the symptoms through the use of electrodes implanted in their brains. The monkeys will survive the experiments, but in the end they will be killed, as the law requires. Aziz doesn't see this as a problem.
With similar experiments conducted in about 30 animals to date, Aziz has played a key role in the development of a brain pacemaker for Parkinson's patients. More than 40,000 people benefit from the results of his research today, often in dramatic ways. Before having the pacemaker implanted, many Parkinson's patients trembled so severely that they were barely able to stand up or walk. When the electrodes were implanted in their brains, the tremors stopped and they were able to live almost normal lives.
"As soon as people are sufficiently informed about the meaning and purpose of animal experiments," says Aziz, "they become willing to support them." Or at least he hopes this is the case. An 88-year-old former nurse wearing a prison uniform recently went on hunger strike in front of his laboratory, demanding the liberation of all laboratory monkeys and an end to animal experiments everywhere.
Aziz was dumbfounded. "A nurse at her age," says Aziz, "was around when massive numbers of children were dying of infectious diseases." Without animal experiments as the core of medical research, this would still be the case today.
"The British have a grotesque relationship to animals," says Aziz, who was born in what is today Bangladesh. "They see them as human-like beings that feel and think the way they do." Which make is all the odder that they never became a nation of vegetarians.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan