In Danny Boyle's modest horror film, 28 Days Later, it is animal rights activists who unleash a cataclysm on the human race. Oblivious to reason or to imprecation, a cell of extremists storm a British scientific laboratory and release chimpanzees from cages. These creatures thank their liberators by attacking them viciously and infecting them with "rage", a rampantly contagious virus which turns its victims into indiscriminate machines for maiming and killing.
The whole scenario is unmitigated nonsense, of course. Even if it was legal in Britain to experiment on chimps, it is unlikely, to say the least, that a licence would be granted to a laboratory attempting to develop an entirely uncontrollable, indiscriminately dangerous illness. If these two little problems were somehow bypassed, it's a fair bet that the security around such a laboratory would be enough to thwart an army of anti-vivisectionists, however demented by single-issue tunnel vision they may be.
Funnily enough though, such logical objections to the premise of the film seem to have little or no effect on the viewers' ability to suspend disbelief in the story. Much of this is due to the fact that, even though many people in this country feel a sentimental kinship with the beliefs of animal-rights activists, they also believe that the activists themselves are basically an unruly bunch of terrorists and nutters who are capable of anything.
But equally, we are vulnerable to the suggestion, despite our professed respect for the nobility of medical science, that the myth of the mad, bad, ruthless professor did not materialise from nowhere. In short, we'll believe anything of anti-vivisectionists and we'll believe anything of scientists too.
In the popular imagination, neither group comes anywhere near to being the good guy. In real life, this translates into a confused ambivalence and lack of willingness to get too deeply involved which means in practice the activists end up winning because they're the ones who play dirty.
The latest victory they are claiming is the abandonment of plans by Cambridge University to set up a multimillion-pound primate research centre. The city council had already tried to veto the project, and it had been saved only by the intervention of John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister. Ultimately though, the plans were still shelved, ostensibly because the costs of providing security for the establishment and for its employees would have proved incredibly prohibitive.
One senses though that it is not only the financial cost that it is being counted here. Colin Blakemore, the high-profile scientist in favour of animal experimentation, may have got an official apology from the Government. But the fact that such an eminent scientist was ever considered too "controversial" for a mention in the honours list is perhaps a reminder to science of how firmly many people like to sit on this particular fence.
The truth is that when it comes to animal welfare, we are committedly a nation of fence-sitters. We revile animal rights activists, but we are grateful to them as well, for curbing such excesses as testing on animals each new brand of mascara that ever came on the market. We understand that the brain diseases that our nearest and dearest could fall victim to may be cured only by experimentation on primate brains, but really we prefer not to think about such things.
It is this preference which, as much as the real risk of intimidation or attack against anyone who stands up to be counted as a pro-vivisectionist, stifles the debate around these important issues. Even the idea of animal rights is not challenged as robustly as it could be.
We're used to anthropomorphism from our earliest childhood, but still most of us reach an age where we understand that a rabbit with time-keeping difficulties is a nursery fantasy. The concept of time, we can see, is of no use to animals. It is a human construct, reliant for its practical existence on the consensus of humans. It is of great practical use to humans, just as a jacket is, and of no use to an animal. The idea, though, that giving rights to animals is just as ludicrous as giving them jackets or clocks is barely challenged.
It is possible that philosophical exploration may be able establish how much or how little right a human has to cause suffering to an animal. But to confer a right not to be hurt on to an animal is meaningless, because the animal has no way of knowing it is in possession of rights, let alone of actively defending them. The idea of giving rights to animals is just another sort of anthropomorphism, a piece of meaningless lip-service grounded in sentiment.
Instead, we have to start taking more seriously our own human rights and our own human responsibilities. For activists in Britain, it may feel like success, to have seen off a primate research centre. But within the context of the state of primates worldwide, it is neither here nor there.
Some wildlife experts predict that the four great apes will have vanished completely in half a century. They, shockingly, are the optimists. Some reckon that the orangutans will be gone in as little as three years.
Targeting vivisection does nothing at all to make an impact on this horrific, galloping, programme of extinction. In fact, like many of Britain's cranky little animal rights causes, from anti-hunt feeling to fur-coat wearing, it almost propagates the idea that risks to animals are a marginal thing, to be policed only by the fanatical.
Instead, the real threat to animals is not vivisection. In fact, vivisection, governed by moral guidelines which strive to minimise suffering and risk, is a rather nasty, but nonetheless defensible reminder of how interlinked the futures of humans and animals are. Humans and animals need each other. And it is humans not animals who need to exercise their rights and their responsibilities in order to secure a future for life on earth.
Parcel-bombing the scientists may feel like one way of doing this. But actually, it's a cruel, self-indulgent, sentimental little sideshow, that alienates the mainstream and turns animal welfare into a issue attractive to those who fancy themselves as tinpot terrorists and cowardly bullies.
Oddly, the same feelings of closeness - few people are now unaware that we share 98 per cent of our DNA with chimps and at least 96 per cent with many of the other primates - make primates ideal for human experimentation and also prompt us to feel particularly unhappy about the idea of their extinction. According to Unesco, long involved in the battle to save the great apes, the loss of any species means that "we destroy part of the bridge to our own origins and part of our humanity". But making animal welfare into a bloodthirsty undertaking, does this as well.Reuse content