Animal extremism – the heart of the matter?

While the Labour government has launched its campaign against 'evil extremists', it has given more than tacit support to the underlying philosophy of animal rights.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

‘Vivisection is very similar to rape; animals are locked up against their will and abused’, said David, a young animal rights protester demonstrating outside the financers Merrill Lynch.

The protesters were calling for Merrill Lynch’s withdrawal of investments in Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a research organisation that carries out medical experiments on animals, on the day that HLS’s board considered closure. Pictures of dismembered dogs were thrust into the hands of passers by.

The idea of animal rights is appealing – nobody likes those images of cuddly animals being strung up, or having chemicals put in their eyes. But very few people support the intimidatory campaigns of animal rights ‘extremists’ – and the UK government recently proposed tougher laws to curb their actions.

But does the debate about the problem of animal rights extremists address the real issues?

Most of us eat meat and wear leather – we accept that different standards apply to humans and animals. This seemed to be a distinction that the protesters outside Merrill Lynch were challenging:

‘Would you take a black person and test on them?’ asked Mary. ‘What makes you think you are superior to animals?’

‘It’s not right – just because animals don’t speak and communicate in human language, it doesn’t mean we should lock them up in cages and experiment on them – they haven’t consented’, said David. At Huntingdon Life Sciences ‘some of the dogs were so frightened that they constantly wet themselves with fear’. Simon argued that ‘animals live in society too – there are packs of lions, groups of apes. How would you like it if someone stole your babies?’.

For these protesters, the animal rights argument goes beyond sentimentality. ‘If a person has AIDS, they should take the risk of the new drug, not animals’, said Mary. Humans are reduced to beasts who eat and sleep and react to unpleasant sensations.

Simon explained: ‘You feel pain, you feel stress, you feel fear…a dog feels pain, a dog feels stress, a dog feels fear. There is no difference between your pain and a dog’s pain. Pain is pain. That’s how we’re equal. Of course we have a better society, but when it comes down to the basics, we’re the same: we have a brain, we have a nervous system, we feel fear, pain and stress. Animals feel the same. Nothing gives us the right to inflict upon animals what we would not want inflicted upon ourselves.’

Animal rights activists often question the efficacy of animal research – David argued that it is ‘unscientific; it tells us about animals, not about humans’. But this is not really their main concern: ‘I don’t think testing is right, even if it did help humans’, David continued. The drive behind the protests is to bring humans ‘back to basics’, to place a dog’s yelp on a par with a human cry.

A small minority of animal protesters seek their ends through violence. By sending nail bombs to employees at Huntingdon Life Sciences, by fire-bombing employees’ cars, these ‘extremists’ show that they are prepared to maim or kill people to prevent medical research on animals. The managing director of HLS was recently beaten with baseball bats; and those who defend animal research, such as Oxford scientist Colin Blakemore, have also been threatened.

The UK government, ‘determined to tackle these animal rights protesters’, has tabled two amendments to the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. The first makes it an offence to demonstrate outside people’s homes (extending the 1992 law which made it an offence in the case of industrial disputes). The second removes the defence of ‘reasonable grounds’ for sending hate mail.

But while the Labour government has launched its campaign against ‘evil extremists’, it has given more than tacit approval to their underlying philosophy – that animals have moral value.

When lobbied by the Political Animal Lobby the Labour Party pension fund withdrew their investment from the company, citing their reasons as ‘ethical’. In recent decades British governments have introduced some of the most stringent controls in the world to safeguard laboratory animal welfare; researchers who propose animal experiments must get a licence from the Home Office, and their experiments have to undergo ethical assessment. The House of Commons has just passed a bill banning foxhunting. Not wanting to be left out, even the Tories have proposed an animal welfare bill.

Barbara Davies, deputy director of the Research Defence Society, an organisation that defends animal research, agrees that, on the issue of animal research, ‘A lot of people have been very cowardly – not just the Labour Party pension fund, but banks and investment funds’.

The RDS has shifted its main approach away from defending animal research, and towards legislating against extremists: ‘our main concern is that the intimidation and harassment of the people involved in animal research’, says Barbara Davies. ‘There has been a shift [in our approach] because there has been a shift in [protesters’] tactics. What they are doing is straightforward intimidation.’

To a large extent, this shift is understandable – as so few people have taken a stand to defend animal research, those who do put themselves in danger.

But we should consider the consequences of this shift.

‘Campaigns succeed because what they do is stifle debate’, says Davies. Couldn’t the new laws also stifle debate? Isn’t the right to protest an important democratic right? ‘We don’t want the laws to stifle debate – nobody has any objection to legitimate political demonstrations, but when it comes to people throwing bricks that is where we object.’

There are already laws against hitting the managing director of Huntingdon Life Sciences over the head with a baseball bat, just as there are also laws on breaches of the peace, harassment, and damage to property. There are good reasons why the more murky forms of ‘intimidation’ (like protesting outside people’s houses) are, at present, not legislated against.

Perhaps the discussion about animal rights could do with more robust debate, and fewer laws.

The names of protesters in this article have been changed.

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Topics Politics


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