The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Feb 20, 2006

Animal Wrongs

Although they have become the bane of many Oxford scientists’ existences lately, I've found the presence of the animal rights protesters in Oxford somewhat charming—anything to spice things up a bit in a place that can seem quite dull at times. I can count on seeing them at least once a week, congregating across the street from the construction site of the new biomedical research building, yelling “Stop the Oxford animal lab!” with a surprising amount of conviction for such a repetitive chant. I know many others don’t have the luxury of finding them charming, though, especially my peers in the Plant Sciences building, for example, located next to the weekly protest site, or the construction workers who are forced to wear masks to protect their identities.

This isn’t charming either. Today’s Guardian reports:
Militant animal rights activists are threatening violent attacks on scores of companies which fund Oxford University unless they announce today they are to end their financial support.

The Animal Liberation Front, through its mouthpiece Bite Back magazine, based in West Palm Beach, Florida, gave 100 firms, ranging from large companies such as IBM to charitable trusts such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and small groups such as the British Deer Society, a week to pull their funding as part of the campaign to stop the building of a medical research laboratory at the university.

Although the ALF has not named the firms it is understood they have taken the names from the website run by Speak, the British based campaign to stop the building of the laboratory. Speak denies connections with the ALF and members say they do not use violence. Their website, however, lists 100 companies known to fund the university, and includes addresses and telephone numbers. It calls on sympathisers to contact the companies, and in some cases named staff.

The ALF is clearly an organization on the fringe of the animal rights movement, and I can sympathize with the predominately peaceful protesters who are tainted by this violent trace element. When I covered an animal rights protest in January 2006, I talked to several protesters about why they were there and how they felt about the movement and its tactics. None of the protesters I spoke to advocated for the destructive tactics of the ALF, and most even disagreed with the intimidation tactics used by the more lawful organization SPEAK, which had organized the demonstration.

SPEAK has enjoyed the best of both worlds, consistently denying any connections to the ALF but refusing to denounce its actions as well. As the Guardian points out, SPEAK could be construed as indirectly supporting the ALF’s activities by providing a list of companies for the organization to target with its renewed promises of violence. These actions by the ALF, though, and the ambivalent response from SPEAK are nothing new, as I reported in describing the police presence at the protest:
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.

Later, when I was preparing an article for Oxford’s ISIS magazine on this topic, I spoke to SPEAK spokesperson Mel Broughton about the ALF. Although he heavily stressed that SPEAK only engages in legal activities, he still gave a cryptic answer. “Whether the actions of those organizations help us or hurt us, I don’t know. Being involved in a legal process is becoming increasingly difficult. Normal activities are being illegalized.”

This lack of a firm stance on the issue calls SPEAK’s credibility into question, and will probably hurt its mission, as people become increasingly disenchanted with the tactics of animal rights extremists.

In the meantime, what is an Oxford scientist to do about all of this?

Apparently, some are turning to the new pro-research organization Pro-Test (if nothing else, they get points in my book for a damn clever name), which is holding a counter protest this coming Saturday:
Build the Oxford Animal Lab

March: 11.30am, Saturday 25 February (6th Week)
Rally in Broad Street, to march via South Parks Road to Radcliffe Square

Support science. Support progress. March in favour of the Oxford Biomedical Research Laboratory and medical advancement through animal experimentation. Demonstrate on Saturday to ensure scientific and medical research continues (and improves) in Oxford University!

Speakers include (from 11.30am):
  • Professor Tipu Aziz, Neurosurgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary
  • Professor John Stein, Professor of Physiology at Oxford University
  • Dr Simon Festing, the Executive Director of the Research Defence Society
  • Dr Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon
  • Pro-Test representatives
Join the email list by emailing:

I don’t know how effective these efforts will be, and I’m not a fan of people on either extreme hijacking the debate and preempting the dialogue on animal experimentation that we probably should be having. With that said, SPEAK has been able to put out too much misinformation for too long, and it’s about time that someone stole its spotlight.

In fact, I think I’m going to play one of SPEAK’s favorite cards here: I am in no way affiliated with Pro-Test, but I hope the rally is successful, and I’d encourage anyone in the Oxford area this weekend to check it out.

Besides, isn’t it about time we saw some more scientific activism anyway?

Note: Thanks go to Jen Dulin for pointing me toward the Guardian article.


  • Being involved in a legal process is becoming increasingly difficult. Normal activities are being illegalized.

    I wonder about this. This sort of thing is happening in the United States where, if you want to protest a Presidential visit, for example, you're shuffled into "free speech" areas that ensure nobody will be able to see you protesting. And if you wear a shirt that has an anti-government slogan on it, you can be hauled off to jail. (They don't end up charging you with anything, but you're conveniently removed from the situation before anyone can see the dissent.) It certainly doesn't sound like that's the case at Oxford, but I wonder if this sort of idea is spreading. Do you have any idea what they mean when they say that "normal activities are being illegalized?" That does sound like a legitimate gripe, though it's certainly not reason enough to commit violence.

    By Anonymous Darrin, at Tue Feb 21, 01:32:00 AM  

  • In this case, Mel Broughton was refering to the police not letting SPEAK march up to the construction site. According to Broughton, SPEAK had engaged in negotiations with the Thames Valley Police, and were told they would be able to march down to the site of the building, but "they gave us no warning and they reneged on their promises that day.” So, if that's true, I can understand why the protesters would be upset. However, I had a good feel for the atmosphere at the protest, and I can see how the police would be worried that things would get out of control if they were allowed to march to the building. By making the broad statement that you quoted above, he implied that there have been other instances of this. I'm not sure what else has happened, although I do know that SPEAK is under an injunction that only allows them to protest at the construction site between certain hours on certain days of the week. With that said, they are able to protest right next to the construction site most of the time, so I don't think they have too much to complain about.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Tue Feb 21, 09:15:00 AM  

  • Nick:

    I agree that a dialogue regarding animal testing is necessary but nonexistant for any practical purpose. As a cancer survivor whose life was certainly saved by animal research, I am in favor of strict regulation of such research. Regulations can only go so far in protecting our co-creatures, as there are always those who are, well, assholes with no respect or compassion for any living thing. As a lawyer for a large biomedical institution, these issues are part of my work, as are American First Amendment issues. A pro-choice person, I'm very, very familiar with regulations regarding protests and why they exist, in this country and state, at least.

    By Anonymous BlueInRedTX, at Tue Feb 21, 03:52:00 PM  

  • I have yet to read your article (I will do so tonight after reading your post), but I was wondering if you could include a general article about the resignation of Lawrence Summers. It is a contentious issue. On one hand, many might argue that he presented scientifically valid arguments to a closeminded community. Others might protest that he was closeminded in putting forth that females might have lower scores in math and science due to intrinsic aptitude.

    Good job on the blog!

    By Anonymous Economist2009, at Tue Feb 21, 07:56:00 PM  

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