Oxford University: Attacks mount in animal battle

Anti-vivisection activists have stepped up their campaign to stop the building of a new laboratory at Oxford University. Nick Jackson talks to protesters and medical researchers about what's at stake

"I believe all things in life are connected. These animals suffer terribly, they're probably destroyed, and they get no choice in it," says Kevin, 41. "We should bring back the death penalty and do these experiments on rapists and paedophiles."

This month, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) announced in a statement circulated to activists that anyone associated with Oxford University is a legitimate target for attack, after work restarted late last year on the university's £18m biomedical facility.

Kevin was one of a couple of dozen animal rights activists who spent Saturday afternoon bunched up behind police lines against the wall of the Vodafone shop in Oxford city centre. Until the megaphones were brought out, the small group was nearly drowned out by a Catholic band drumming up converts down the road.

To a background of the activists' more secular chants, Kevin, an unemployed builder from Cirencester, explained the strange sartorial ethics of wearing a leather jacket to an animal rights protest.

"The cow was killed for food, I'm not against that, people have to eat meat to live," he told me. Kevin is clearly not a member of the vegetarian ALF. "And you've got to wear a leather jacket on a motorbike, this jacket's saved my skin a few times."

Elsewhere, a passer-by argued with the statistics on the campaign leaflets. "At least we do our shoelaces up," a protester commented to a sloppily dressed maths graduate.

The violent explosion of the 350-strong animal rights demo that marked the beginning of term seems to have been dampened by the chill Oxford winter to a whimper. It is not the mass disruption campaigners have been threatening.

Since 2004 the Oxford biomedical facility has been dogged by protests organised by Speak, the group that forced Cambridge to drop plans to build a primate laboratory two years ago. That summer, building at Oxford stopped for 16 months when the construction company dropped out after shareholders were threatened by activists.

Last year a boathouse was burnt down and a bomb was planted at a sports facility. Two weeks ago an architect working on the project had his car attacked.

Last week Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs, a campaign made famous after activists stole the remains of a guinea pig farmer's dead mother-in-law, handed over its resources to the Oxford campaign after the Newchurch farm closed. Oxford has taken out an injunction against Speak and the ALF and millions of pounds of government money is being spent on security.

They have good reason to be worried. New figures from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, due to be released this week, show that animal rights activists are abandoning conventional methods for more extreme tactics. Some 36 abusive emails, letters, and texts from animal rights activists were reported in 2005, compared with only a third of that number in 2004; incendiary attacks leapt from one in the whole of 2003 and 2004 to eight last year.

Robin Webb, press officer for the Animal Liberation Front, the group behind most of these attacks, says this will only rise further over the next year. "I can only foresee an increase in illegal actions," he says. "That will be the fault of the Government for outlawing protest that was legal. People will be thinking, why not take a few steps to the radical end of the movement?"

There has been a widespread crackdown on animal rights activists by the authorities. That has meant more prosecutions, Asbos, and two new offences brought in under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act to protect research institutions from intimidation. Both carry five-year terms; seven arrests have been made so far.

Activists say the police have interpreted the act as a licence to provoke them and claim that the new laws and the injunction are an attack on their freedom of expression. But researchers are not impressed. "The violent groups that follow Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty and Speak very much limit our freedom of speech," says Dr Simon Festing, director of the Research Defence Society.

The lawful and unlawful campaigning go hand in hand, explains Webb. "The single-issue campaign groups identify targets for lawful protest," he says. "This information is available to their supporters but equally to the people who are prepared to go outside the law, who will target these institutions."

This combination of lawful protest and illegal intimidation has long been used to devastating effect by activists. One very eminent professor, who prefers to remain anonymous, suffered 15 years of intense harassment. Campaigners held regular protests outside his home, shouting abuse and threats from the early hours.

Others threw bricks through his window. Two bombs were delivered through his door. His children were threatened with kidnap and their schools had to be evacuated because of bomb threats. He was told by Special Branch officers to assume that around every corner a man with a gun was ready to kill him.

It can be hard to square this kind of persecution with the ethical principles that underlie a movement inspired by, among others, Jeremy Bentham. "Until we have respect for individuals of different species we will not have respect for individuals of our own species," says Webb.

And for radical activists the issue is that simple. It is inexcusable to harm animals, no matter what the cost to humans. The cost in lost research would be massive if animals were no longer used, according to the Research Defence Society. "Every medical advance in the past century has depended at some stage on animal testing. Hundreds of millions of lives have been saved," says Dr Festing. He points out that if Thalidomide had been properly tested, on rabbits and mice, its deforming characteristics would have been spotted sooner. He adds that every major medical research institution in the world backs animal testing.

But some scientists are not convinced that it is as simple as that. "Of course so many of the Nobel winners have used animal models, that's the way things are done," says Dr Jarrod Bailey, a research scientist and member of Europeans for Medical Progress, a group opposed to animal testing. "But has that contributed to research or impeded it? Animal models actually impede progress because of species differences."

Dr Bailey blames inappropriate animal models for a swathe of recent medical research failures, from harmful Aids vaccines to the Vioxx disaster. Some 92 per cent of drugs that pass tests on animals, he says, do not work on humans.

Over the past few years there has been growing support for alternatives to animal models, whether using human cell cultures in test tubes and computer models or tracing tiny doses through human subjects and testing drugs on DNA chips. By law, researchers have to test drugs on animals, but they are using fewer furry subjects. Nearly a million fewer tests were done on animals last year than in 1987. And the Government has set up a national centre to minimise the use of animal testing.

But there is some research for which animals are absolutely necessary. Some organisms are too complex to be replicated in test tubes. Dr Bailey's answer is that animal models of complex organisms are too different to human organs to be useful. The research should be stopped, he believes. Many research scientists disagree. Dr John Parrington is a researcher and lecturer at Oxford University working on male infertility. His team is studying the protein in sperm that acts as the wake-up call to the egg at the moment of fertilisation and allows it to develop into an embryo.

"We've shown that the protein in humans, mice, and hamsters is essentially the same thing," he says. Although some work can be done with human volunteers' sperm, it took a study of fertilisation in mice and hamsters to isolate the protein and study how it is released. "We wouldn't work on animals unless we had to," he says.

During the operation to genetically modify their sperm, the animals are given painkillers and put under a general anaesthetic, as in a human operation. Dr Parrington believes that the new facility will improve animal welfare and points out that animals used in research are much more closely regulated than animals kept as pets.

The irony for animal rights activists is that the UK now has one of the world's most strictly regulated animal research industries. "In some cases research goes abroad because of extremism here," says Dr Festing. "It is not necessarily done to such high welfare standards."

Activists long ago answered any questions about how far they were willing to go to destroy the British animal research industry. What will they have achieved if they succeed?

Fact box

* 3,550 projects at 227 establishments in the UK are licensed to test on animals.

* 75 per cent of people asked in a Mori poll last year supported animal testing; 89 per cent supported it for life-threatening illnesses where no alternative was available.

* 2.85 million animal medical experiments were carried out last year. This includes blood samples and breeding as well as painful procedures that require the animal to be killed. Of the animals used, 0.5 per cent are primates. In the UK, it is illegal to test on the great apes: chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and bonobos.

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