Animals have rights as well

It is instructive to note how frequently money wiggles its way into the argument for animal experimentation
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The Independent Online

Of course animals have rights. That is why we have laws against cruelty and neglect in this country, as well as a ban on experiments on higher primates. This needs to be pointed out forcefully in a week when the Daily Mail praised the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, for promising to get tough with "animal rights extremists". This category, according to the Mail, includes not just people who use threats and violence but those who "bullied cowardly Whitehall into denying a knighthood to Professor Colin Blakemore", a leading advocate of animal experiments.

Of course animals have rights. That is why we have laws against cruelty and neglect in this country, as well as a ban on experiments on higher primates. This needs to be pointed out forcefully in a week when the Daily Mail praised the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, for promising to get tough with "animal rights extremists". This category, according to the Mail, includes not just people who use threats and violence but those who "bullied cowardly Whitehall into denying a knighthood to Professor Colin Blakemore", a leading advocate of animal experiments.

Actually, it is reasonable that a democratic society should withhold honours from a man who advocates something many regard as morally dubious. Does that make me an extremist? I don't think so, any more than Jeremy Bentham was a crazed zealot when he wrote in the late 18th century that "the day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny".

Philosophers have been debating this subject for hundreds of years. As a lapsed vegetarian, I am well aware of my own failings in this respect, but the general trend has been towards granting greater rights to animals. Few people have changed their minds as quickly as Michael A Fox: less than a year after he published a book called The Case for Animal Experimentation in 1986, the Canadian philosopher recanted, conceding that he could no longer see any justification for human beings benefiting from the suffering of animals.

The usual justification is that laboratory animals suffer and die in the noble cause of finding a cure for HIV or cancer. So it has been instructive to note, in the past week, how many times money has wiggled its way into the argument in favour of animal experimentation. The Mail complained that animal rights activists "threaten Britain's world-beating, multibillion-pound pharmaceutical industry". The Daily Telegraph was furious about the £1bn a year investment "lost to Britain" through the actions of people who oppose animal experimentation. The Times fretted that a more forceful regulatory regime to protect laboratory animals would risk "scaring off the very knowledge-based employers on which the economy depends".

Not so moral, is it? It's one thing to infect live animals with a nasty virus in the hope of developing a vaccine to protect humans and another to do it in the hope that the big drug companies will make even more money and create more jobs. Indeed the vehemence with which supporters of animal rights are denounced is designed to obscure the fact that most experiments on animals have little to do with great medical or scientific advances. In 2002, about 80 per cent of the 2.7 million animal experiments performed in this country were mandatory toxicology tests, designed to prevent companies from harming their customers.

I have not even begun to mention the suffering imposed on animals by factory farming. In the US last week People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals revealed videotapes from a camera planted by a group member who worked undercover at a slaughterhouse in West Virginia. Employees of the slaughterhouse, which has a contract with the fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken, were filmed stamping on live chickens and hurling them against walls. Eleven workers were sacked and the slaughterhouse was warned by KFC's parent company Yum Brands - itself the target of lawsuits aimed at making it stop forcing birds to grow so fast that their legs collapse - to improve conditions or lose the contract.

Cruelty towards animals brutalises the human beings who take part in it, as philosophers have long understood. Ministers, farmers and pharmaceutical companies are within their rights to deplore violence and intimidation from people who support animal rights. They may denounce extremists as "internal terrorists" (Blunkett) and compare the Animal Liberation Front to al-Qa'ida (Daily Telegraph). But they cannot deny that millions of animals are being exposed to unnecessary suffering or that the movement to give them more protection has a very powerful case.

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