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8 March 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

A timeline of reaction
Opposition to animal research has a long history - and none of it is glorious.

by Stuart Derbyshire

Animal research was put on the UK public agenda yet again, when protesters targeted the directors of the Royal Bank of Scotland to withdraw loan support from the Cambridgeshire-based company Huntington Life Sciences (HLS). Their success placed HLS close to bankruptcy, until it was rescued by an anonymous money source from the USA.

HLS ran into trouble in March 1997 when Channel 4 aired a TV programme (It's a Dog's Life) based on their undercover filming. Two months later, Michelle Rocke, of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), released her undercover films recorded at American HLS laboratories in East Millstone, New Jersey. Using a surveillance camera embedded in her eyeglasses, Rocke took hours of film subsequently featured on US television. The footage showed incidents of unprofessional behaviour such as yelling at a monkey, 'Calm down before I bite your face', and inappropriate animal handling, such as throwing a beagle against a wall, slamming animals into cages and other rough treatment.

In response to the film, movie star Kim Basinger gave a press conference on HLS's lawn, demanding the release of the beagles, and the US Department of Agriculture fined HLS $50,000 for animal welfare violations. HLS also received a stern warning from the then Home Office minister, George Howarth. The company subsequently replaced its management and improved standards of animal care, but continued to be a target of attack from animal rights supporters.

These attacks reached their current peak in the UK at the end of 2000 when protesters began picketing the Cambridge headquarters of HLS and the homes of the directors, smashing car windows, sending hate mail, and generally doing their best to make life miserable for the staff and executives of HLS.

The campaign against HLS is just the latest from a long history of opposition to animal research. British legal action to protect animals began with the passing of the 1822 Act to Prevent Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle. The act was amended in 1835 to include (as 'cattle') bulls, dogs, bears and sheep, to prohibit bear-baiting and cockfighting, which facilitated further legislation to protect animals, create shelters, veterinary hospitals and more humane transportation and slaughter.

The control of vivisection was not a primary or consistent objective; but a pivotal event occurred in 1874 at the University of Norwich when a lecturer demonstrated how to induce epileptic symptoms in a dog through the administration of absinthe. Some students in the audience objected and the dog was set free. Charges were filed against the lecturer under the 1822 act.

Two years later, in 1876, parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act, requiring a yearly license for animal experimentation and placing restrictions on some forms of apparently painful experimentation. At the turn of the twentieth century, two members of the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) infiltrated a physiology course at University College London. Their actions led to the erection of a statue in Battersea in 1906, commemorating the little brown dog said to have been used in experiments during the course.

In 1911 animal cruelty legislation was consolidated under the Protection of Animals Act, which raised fines for cruelty and prohibited cruelty to 'any bird, beast, reptile or fish'. An exception was made for animals wounded and killed in bloodsports (1).

US attempts to organise animal welfare movements generally followed those of Britain, but were rarely as effective. Following the 1822 act in Britain, New York state passed a law in 1829 making cruelty to cattle a misdemeanor, and the state of Massachusetts later passed a similar law.

The human devastation wreaked by two world wars rendered the concern for animal pain somewhat ridiculous
In New York, Henry Bergh organised the first chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in 1866, after visiting the RSPCA in London. Two years later a Massachusetts chapter was founded by George Angell, a Boston attorney, following the deaths of two horses in a New England race. The Massachusetts group launched a periodical, Our Dumb Animals, in 1868, which featured stories about exceptional cats and dogs, ran anti-vivisection essays and featured articles on the unsanitary and inhumane conditions of slaughterhouses.

As in Britain, animal advocates became increasingly vocal in opposition to vivisection, but their attempts at passing legislation were far less successful. Anti-vivisection bills failed to pass through Congress in 1866, and again in 1880. The National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association rose to the challenge and successfully opposed an 1896 bill to regulate vivisection.

The British obsession with animal welfare has its roots in secular philosophy and the early adoption of animals as pets. Britain was the first industrial nation, and as such moved away from a rural way of life prior to the rest of the world. The adoption of animals as companions was only possible as animals became less obviously a source of food and utility.

The question of what animals might feel or think about naturally followed, and was summed up in the oft-quoted statement of Jeremy Bentham: 'The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?'. Utilitarian philosophers, notably John Stuart Mill, argued in accordance with Bentham that if animals could experience and anticipate pain, they were deserving of moral consideration regardless of any other apparent differences between humans and animals.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the dominance of science and industry that Britain had previously enjoyed began to unravel, and hostility to vivisection was encouraged by increasing anxiety over the progress of society and the role of science (2). In contrast to the erosion of Victorian confidence, US society was entering a period of increasing opportunity and industry. Moreover, moral philosophy in the USA was less secular and dominated by the religious belief that God made man in his image and gave him dominion over all other creatures.

Although clearly more muted, the difference in secular and religious outlook between Britain and the USA and the contrast in confidence continues today.

Relative to previous years, the period between 1920 and 1960 was characterised by little or no change in the protection of animals, and efforts to overturn vivisection were greatly reduced on both sides of the Atlantic. The human devastation wreaked by two world wars rendered the concern for animal pain somewhat ridiculous, and created national priorities associated with rebuilding and defence that were far removed from a concern for animal welfare.

In addition, the phenomenal success of medicine in the eradication of smallpox and polio, and the development of intensive farming mechanisms that made meat and dairy products affordable to almost everybody, further diminished the impact of the animal-protection movement. The volume of animal experimentation increased dramatically and virtually without challenge. During the 1950s, the ASPCA opposed anti-vivisection and even sold pound animals for laboratory experiments.

The moral status of animals returned as a major topic of discussion and legislative efforts in the 1960s.

The comparison of broiler chickens with Jews indicates how profoundly disorientated our moral compass has become
In 1962, Rachel Carson warned of species destruction and other virtually apocalyptic consequences of pesticide use, especially DDT, in her book Silent Spring. Ruth Harrison published Animal Machines in 1964, highlighting the living conditions of animals in factory farms. Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees and gorillas was widely popularised, and suggested a human kinship with primates and a need for protection. The World Wildlife Fund was founded in 1961 and Greenpeace in 1969.

It was the publication of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation in 1975, however, that provided a platform and considerable momentum for the newly burgeoning animal rights movement. A philosopher in the Utilitarian tradition of Bentham and Mill, Singer argued that in decisions pertaining to animals, the total amount of good that results to humanity should be weighed against the animal suffering caused in the process.

Singer did not weigh humans and animals equally in the balance, but he did argue that, insofar as animal capacities might be compared to a child or a mentally disabled person, then we should only do to the animal what we would do to children or mentally disabled people. To do otherwise, according to Singer, was to play favourites with humans, which he called 'speciesism' - a label deliberately invoking a comparison with racism.

Other more radical comments have followed in the wake of Singer. Writing in Ethics and Behaviour Tom Regan, a leading advocate for animal rights in America, argued that the moral rights of animals place absolute limitations on human experiments with animals, because 'the use of non-human animals in scientific research is wrong in principle….These animals do not belong in laboratories in the first place…it is not larger cages, but empty cages, that animal rightists call for' (3).

US director of PETA Ingrid Newkirk put it more bluntly in 1983 when she asserted 'animal liberationists do not separate out the human animal, so there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They're all mammals'. She is also famous for stating, 'Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses'.

Chris DeRose, who heads an organisation called In Defence of Animals, has said that even if the death of one rat would cure all disease, that death would still not be justified, because rats and humans are equal.

The casual interchange of people and animals, the comparison of broiler chickens with Jews, and the contrast of human struggles for liberation with the supposed need to free animals, are all indicative of how disorientated our moral compass has become. Singer and Regan might not be brainless bunny-huggers, but their powers of persuasion are insufficient to explain the apparent willingness of many people to credit the bizarre ideas of the animal rights movement.

Optimism regarding human progress was severely eroded during the last century, and the role of science has increasingly come under attack, being perceived as a destructive rather than creative force. In this climate, the anti-vivisectionist message that animal research is pointless, wasteful and destructive has a greater resonance than it otherwise would.

Perhaps worst of all is that even scientists involved in animal research have fallen victim to this increasingly pessimistic outlook, and fail to offer a robust or consistent defence of their work.

Stuart Derbyshire is an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh Department of Anaethesiology. He is a contributor to Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Animal research: a scientist's defence by Stuart Derbyshire

Animal extremism: the heart of the matter? by Josie Appleton

Andrew Blake: 'Animal research is the only hope for people like me'

Pig organ transplants: you could die waiting by Stuart Derbyshire

(1) Animal Revolution: Changing Attitudes Towards Speciesism R Ryder, Cambridge: Basil Blackwell 1989, p131

(2) Science and the Retreat from Reason, J Gillott and M Kumar, Merlin Press 1995

(3) Ethics and Behaviour 7: p103-111, 1997

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