When Laurie Pycroft was being interviewed for a place to study life sciences at Balliol College Oxford, an obvious discussion point might have been his decision to take on animal rights groups campaigning to prevent the building of a new research centre at the university. But he chose not to talk about it. "I didn't bring it up at the interview," says the undergraduate, now enjoying his first year of study at the ancient seat of learning. "I figured that if I am going to get here I wanted to do it on my own merit."
It was in 2006 that the then 16-year-old first took to the ramparts against what he considered to be misinformation and propaganda peddled by animal rights groups. One Saturday in Oxford he came across a noisy demonstration against the highly controversial £18m Biomedical Science Building, the construction of which had been halted after militant antivivisectionists threatened contractors and staff. With typical teenage decisiveness, he fashioned a makeshift sign and took on the opponents face to face.
On his return home, he turned to the internet and began blogging his views before eventually setting up the group Pro-Test, which became the public mouthpiece for scientists and others prepared to stand and be counted on the deeply provocative subject of animal testing.
Before long, Pycroft was being hailed by academics, commentators and politicians for his bravery and was the subject of a long and glowing profile in The New York Times after leading 1,000 supporters through the streets of Oxford.
It was the first time Britain had seen anything like it. At that point the Serious Organised Crime Act, which was to lead to the jailing of protesters who targeted companies and employees involved in research, had only just become law and few holding the opposite position were prepared to put their heads above the parapet – until, that is, the teenage boy from Swindon stepped in.
He was rewarded for his stance with death threats, and the police advised his parents to fit a panic button at his home. "I spent a lot of time on the internet having people sending messages saying unpleasant things," he recalls. "At the initial stage we did get some very unpleasant things. We were never physically targeted but the worry was there and we knew that scientists had been targeted in the past. But we never got physical abuse or attacked."
Pro-Test is currently celebrating its fifth anniversary and Pycroft, now 21, and fellow campaigners, including Oxford consultant neurosurgeon Professor Tipu Aziz, spent the organisation's birthday weekend last month handing out leaflets on Cornmarket and delivering a series of lectures.
While to outsiders it may have seemed a natural progression for Pycroft to study at Oxford, it has proved far from straightforward. At the time of the launch of Pro-Test he had been forced to drop out of school, suffering from depression. As well as dealing with the normal pressures of adolescence and the ill-will of some animal rights campaigners, he had to endure his new-found notoriety in the glare of the public spotlight.
"The media attention was hard to cope with. We courted the media because we are a campaign group and we wanted to get that message across," he says.
"My parents were very apprehensive about it. But I told them this was not something I was going to give up on and they gave me their complete support," he adds.
Although he had shown an early interest in the biomedical sciences – devising an artificial ear drum at the age of seven and sending it off to his local hospital for consideration – his depression meant he was required to sit an access course at his local college before completing his Bmat to get into Oxford. He initially wanted to study at Imperial College but changed his mind. "I spent a lot of time here [in Oxford] during the campaign and fell in love with the city. It is a fantastic place to study and the course is world class," he says.
Having planned a career in clinical practice, his regular visits to laboratories and meetings with scientists convinced him that his future lay in neuroscience research. Now he says he rarely talks about his campaigning past unless he is delivering a lecture in a school or college about the need for animal research. And he has yet to use Oxford's new biomedical centre, where animals, including monkeys, are housed.
"I don't mention it that much but it comes up occasionally with other students," he says.
"In bio-medical sciences they are pretty positive about it. It was an interesting chapter of my life that I am very proud of but it has happened now." Although the climate may have become more tolerant, the need to keep arguing the case persists. "As with any area of medical ethics it is something that is constantly developing. It is not a debate that is ever going to end. In the next century or possibly more we will get to the point where we don't need to do animal testing any more, and at that point we should stop doing it. But to get to that point we will have to develop computer models, but we will need to test these against animal models first," he says.
If people are prepared to eat meat and keep pets, they should also be willing to support research on animals, he says. Despite the problems he has encountered in the past he retains a certain respect for his opponents.
"Some of them have an internally consistent intellectual argument," he says. "There is a popular misconception that animal rights activists are all firebomb-throwing nuts, but a lot are very reasonable people. There is a very small minority, but a very vocal one, which is not. A lot of them are in jail and so that part of the debate has been closed down."
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