Caught in the Line of Fire: Animal Rights Activists Take Over Oxford
Actually, I didn’t even need to leave my building to know what was going on, as I was greeted at the door by a new poster:
DUE TO ANIMAL RIGHTS PROTESTS THE RED DOORS ARE TO STAY CLOSED TO TODAY.
Later that afternoon, the animal rights group SPEAK would be holding a national demonstration in Oxford, and a fear of potentially violent activity had motivated the extensive security presence. Although the numbers would be much larger than normal, animal rights protesters are a common site in Oxford, and have been since March 2004, when construction began on a new biomedical research center where animal research will take place. Although progress on the building had stalled for 18 months—due to intimidation tactics by the animal rights groups, including threats to the contractor and its workers—construction resumed at the end of November 2005. Although the University of Oxford claims that the new building will only consolidate current research and provide more humane facilities, the protesters have latched onto this new more tangible symbol of animal research.
The presence of such security, although excessive, was understandable, since animal rights groups in Oxford have resorted to destructive tactics in the past. Last year, on July 4, the Animal Liberation Front burned down an Oxford boathouse causing damage estimated at ₤500,000, later warning in its statement claiming responsibility for the attack that nothing the University of Oxford owns is off limits. Although the SPEAK leadership denied involvement, it also refused to condemn the action. SPEAK could be construed as showing additional support for violent acts by publishing photos online of the construction workers (who mask their faces to protect their identities) and writing threatening letters to contractors and others associated with the building project.
If repetition alone were enough to spur someone into action, turning on his or her own peers, the new research center would have long ago been torn down by a clambering mass of biochemists, chemists, environmental scientists, pathologists, and plant scientists—following the incessant cries of “Stop the Oxford Animal Lab!” repeated over and over again through a loudspeaker just outside their windows all day every Thursday. So far that hasn’t happened, though, so the demonstration went on as planned.
At about 12:30, I turned the corner onto Broad Street, where the demonstrators were gathering. I was immediately struck by the boundary of yellow-clad police officers surrounding the protesters. In fact, the number of security personnel, members of the media, and casual observers may have surpassed that of actual demonstrators, but more protesters arrived over the next hour, carrying signs with such slogans as “vivisection is scientific fraud” and “we cannot cure humans by torturing animals.”
“It’s just people taking photographs of other people taking photographs of them,” noted Charlie Taylor, a graduate student studying biochemistry at Oxford, observing the large proliferation of cameras at the demonstration. In addition to the media and the protesters trying to document the occasion, even a few police officers sported some very nice cameras that succeeded in giving me an acute case of camera envy.
Then the speakers began, with the leader of the protest attempting to rile up the crowd. “We can think for ourselves, be unpredictable, and take the fight to you,” he yelled. “If you think I’m trying to incite people, that’s exactly what I’m doing.” After the crowed had been excited, the organizers lined the protesters up to begin marching.
By the time the march began, I estimated a crowd of about 300 to 400 people, well short of SPEAK’s stated goal of 600 people. The march proceeded at a lazy pace down Broad Street and on to Park Road, boxed in by police officers, but somehow I was swept away with it—an Oxford scientists’ worst nightmare.
Things didn’t get interesting, though, until the demonstration turned onto South Parks Road, the street leading to the biomedical research center construction site. Blocking the street halfway down South Parks Road was a makeshift metal fence backed up by about 25 police officers, some on horseback, with more on the way. The protesters had different plans, though, and as soon as they reached the fence things really heated up. The fence went down almost immediately as clashes between officers and protesters broke out. The protesters succeeded in driving the line back 10 to 20 meters before their progress halted.
The speakers soon started again, including the leader of the protest, two other animal rights activist, and an Oxford alumnus. While alumnus Matthew Simpson was more philosophical and insightful, the other speakers focused most of their energy toward inciting the crowd, insulting the police, and even making thinly veiled threats.
“I’m going to use telepathy here because I want them to think about what’s got us here, and I’m not just talking about demonstrations and listening to speakers,” said speaker John Curtain, describing the success the animal rights movement had in stalling construction on the building. “I have to use telepathy because I can’t say these things out loud, since they have an injunction against us.”
As the speeches went on, protesters continued to clash with police, causing the police to eventually bring in backup officers in riot gear. Although the clashes demonstrated a need for a police presence on South Parks Road to prevent the protesters from attacking the biomedical research center, the enormous numbers of officers present in general seemed unnecessary, and probably intended to intimidate the protesters. With that said, the police showed great restraint in the face of constant taunting. I did not even witness any arrests, although the BBC reported five.
Eventually, the leader instructed the protesters to head back into town, toward the Oxford town hall. Tensions had decreased considerably by this point, and I was able to talk to several of the protesters and observers. Earlier, I had noticed that although there were some people of roughly university student age in the demonstration, the average age of the protesters was about 40. None of the protesters I talked to were students at the University of Oxford, but I did find some who were watching the protests.
“I understand what they’re trying to say,” one student said, “but I’m not personally against animal research.”
According to another student, the protest was “quite powerful.” However, she noted that she believes the decision comes down to whether we are going to cure cancer or not, and she chooses the former.
The first student later added “I’m amazed at their dedication, but I would like to see it directed somewhere else.”
Amanda Sullivan had traveled to Oxford from London for a different reason: she was here to keep an eye on her daughter, Hanna, a secondary school student who wanted to participate in the protests. Although she was not an active participant in the protest and was not sure exactly where she stood on the issue, she added that “nobody wants an animal to suffer.” Sullivan was unsure whether the protest would be effective because the protesters were so aggressive. Instead, she thought the way her daughter, a vegan (someone who does not consume or use animal products), had gone about it was much more effective, constantly approaching her mother with new information.
“See, I’m even wearing vegan boots today,” Sullivan said, pointing at otherwise unremarkable footwear. When asked what they were made of, though, she conceded that she didn’t know. Still, her point is interesting, since some studies have demonstrated that fear, a tool used extensively by the animal rights activists, can be effective at compelling people into action, but only those already converted. Those who are undecided or against a cause are rarely won over using fear tactics.
That’s bad news for the animal rights activists, since a recent poll conducted in December 2005 by the Research Defense Society showed that 55% of people in the United Kingdom support the use of animals in medical research. The support at The University of Oxford is much higher. A poll conducted by the Cherwell, an Oxford student newspaper, in November 2005 found that 86% of students support animal research and 84.8% believe that the new biomedical research building should be completed. If one of the goals of SPEAK and other groups is to win people over, then they are not likely to enjoy much success, at least not if they continue using the same tactics. Of course, if they are only interested in achieving goals by intimidating researchers and workers, then they might enjoy more success in that arena.
I was able to interview several protesters, although all but one insisted on remaining anonymous. With a few minor differences, they shared similar views on most of the issues at hand, although they varied in some key ways from the leaders of the demonstration. All of the protesters I talked to were vegetarians or vegans, and they attended the protest because they were against almost any use of animals in general.
Since SPEAK heavily features primate research in its literature, using particularly graphic pictures, I assumed that the demonstration participants would make a distinction between primate research, which is fairly rare, and mouse research, which is much more common. That wasn’t the case.
“All animals are the same. All animals are capable of feeling suffering,” said one anonymous protester.
Although this view is consistent with their personal philosophies, it brings up an interesting question. Why does SPEAK rely so heavily on attacking primate research? This is especially misleading, since according to the University of Oxford, 98% of the animals in the new biomedical research center will be rodents or fish. This is true for animal research in general, the vast majority of which is conducted on mice.
I also expected that many of the protesters would have a bias against funding scientific research in general, but this was not the case either. In fact, the protesters I talked to seemed worried that animal research was taking away funding from more important research. Since less than one-fourth of biomedical research involves animals, though, that is unlikely, especially since animal research yields important information that scientists cannot find in other ways.
When asked whether they would take medications that had been developed through animal testing, most of the protesters I talked to said that they would.
“Refusing medication doesn’t do anything,” said one anonymous protester. “If that person died he couldn’t protest anymore.” Another said that she would have to take the drugs due to a lack of alternatives. On the other hand, Anne Ram, a protester from Bedfordshire, said that she refuses to take medications in general.
The protesters I interviewed were not particularly enthusiastic about the use of violence and intimidation in the animal rights movement, although one woman said that it has been “both effective and ineffective.” This puts many of the protesters at odds with the leaders of these organizations, who openly advocate intimidation tactics and who focused much of their speeches at the rally on intimidating and taunting the police.
Although I thought I might be able to find some common ground between protesters and researchers, I came away empty handed. By calling animal research “torture” and “vivisection” the protesters preclude themselves from participating in any rational discussion on ways to improve animal research to ensure even further that it is humane. Surprisingly, a common sentiment among the activists is that the researchers actually enjoy hurting animals.
“They go in there because that’s what they want to do: kill animals,” said Ram.
Although the protesters made many good points at the demonstration, this viewpoint regarding the motivation of scientists demonstrates a sharp disconnect with reality. I am not sure what would lead people to this point, believing that every scientist who does any research on animals does so because he or she wants to hurt and kill animals—not because he or she wants to cure diseases in humans and animals—but regardless of whether they are just extremely pessimistic or have just listened to too much propaganda, it will be extremely difficult or impossible to reach a compromise with people who hold such unyielding views.
By the time the protest march had made its way back to Broad Street, on its way to the town hall, I was tired. The three hours I had been at the demonstration had been exhilarating, but also exhausting. I don’t know what happened after I left, but the protest had been slowly dying down since leaving South Parks Road, so probably not too much.
I had learned a lot by this point, though, and much of it was unexpected. I was surprised that the motivations and goals of the protesters seemed to differ so much from those of the protest leaders. Despite the temptation, we should not globally label these activists as violent. In fact, the protesters were for the most part very peaceful, although the leaders succeeded in inciting some of them. Still, in the end it is up to these more peaceful people to wrestle control of their organizations away from the more violent leaders.
Based on the tactics they use and the message they send across, the leaders in particular do not appear interested in winning over new supporters, instead focusing on using the manpower they already have to intimidate. If this strategy continues, the animal rights movement will probably not grow but will instead decline.
Most importantly, I found that the protesters were firmly set in an extreme ideology. They were not there to protest what they thought were particularly inhumane types of animal research, and they were not even necessarily there to protest animal research in general. Instead, protested because they disagree with most uses or “exploitation” of animals, including eating them, regardless of how humane the methods are. Although I admire them for having such a consistent philosophy, this indicates that negotiations or compromise with these organizations will be virtually impossible. Although the science community should not ignore these protesters, scientists should not try to win the animal rights activists over and should instead focus on helping the general public understand their science and the motivations behind it.
In the past, animal rights activism has done great things for society, insuring that animal research is conducted to a reasonable ethical standard. The United States, the United Kingdom, and many other countries have specific laws governing the conditions under which research on animals or humans can be undertaken. In addition, individual universities have their own ethical review boards for the same purpose. Although I believe the ethical bar could be set even higher, I don’t believe that calling for an end to all research on animals, and using intimidation or violence to achieve those means, will accomplish that. While activists have spurred important changes in the past, the current animal rights activists probably will not. In the meantime, the University of Oxford has presented the protesters with a better symbol to direct their energies against than they could have ever asked for.
This article from the Cherwell provides background on the current controversy.
Adventures in Ethics and Science has recently published several good discussions on animal research:
“Professional Duties, Personal Convictions”
“Just Because They’re Out to Get You Doesn’t Mean They Don’t Have a Point”
“Is All Animal Research Inhumane?”
Update 24 February 20:42 GMT: I have made one correction to this post, based on information I came across when I was adapting this post into an article for Oxford’s ISIS magazine. I had thought I heard speaker Matthew Simpson introduced as an Oxford professor, but I later learned after reading multiple accounts in The Oxford Student that he was in fact just a graduate of the university (although he claimed to speak for the entire university).