Newsmaker: The lab rat's best friend

Michelle Thew, chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, wants to lift the official veil of secrecy over the use of animals in laboratory tests.

Michelle Thew
Michelle Thew
Tucked away in a quiet, middle class road in Highbury in north London, the headquarters of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection are not what most might expect of an animal rights organisation.

There are no mice liberated from the clutches of scientists running through the hallways. Nor are there any lentil-munching hippies moaning about fox hunting. Yes, there is a dog in the library and a giant picture of a rabbit in the lobby, but BUAV's offices are decidedly ordinary, which is exactly the image Michelle Thew, the chief executive, wants to portray.

Thew, who was appointed in January for a second stint running BUAV, doesn't want animal testing to be pigeon-holed as a specialist subject for monkey lovers. She says it's a mainstream subject of interest to most Britons. "Most members of the public don't want to see animals suffer in laboratories; we are representing that mainstream public opinion."

Ordinary shouldn't be mistaken for unassuming, however. BUAV is taking the Home Office to court next week after an undercover investigation by the charity found what it claims is evidence of the ministry's failure to properly implement the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Although the action runs into some quite specialist areas, such as the Home Office's licence approval system, Thew explains the charity's decision to take on such an ambitious legal case in simple terms.

She says: "Whether you support BUAV's view or not, there should be an informed public debate about the issues, and that can't take place with the regime of secrecy we have now."

Many mysteries surround animal testing in the UK, Thew claims, because the experiments and the number of animals used in them often go undisclosed by the universities where they take place. "We've asked a number of universities for very simple information - as simple as the number of primates they're using, and they refuse to disclose even that," she says. "The institutions that are using animals in laboratories try to control the agenda so there is no informed public debate. What we get are carefully scheduled PR tours of institutions, and that's not the same."

Thew believes animal experimentation should be subject to independent scrutiny. She says: "The Home Office grants the licence to institutions to do animal experimentation. It's the Home Office's Animal Scientific Procedures Inspectorate that is responsible for monitoring those institutions. If there's any potential wrongdoing, the same agency goes back to investigate."

Thew admits the decision to proceed with a judicial review against a large government department isn't one that the chief executive of a campaign group with limited resources takes lightly, but the decision has been made easier by the High Court's issuing of a protective costs order. She says. "It's the first time an animal protection organisation has been given a PCO, which shows there's strong public interest in the case."

Thew believes that high street retailer Marks & Spencer's decision to carry BUAV's cruelty-free bunny logo on all its beauty products (Third Sector, 23 May) also proves there is widespread interest in the issue. "People are responding to the ethical and green agenda," she says.

But the recent green and ethical trend also presents groups such as BUAV with challenges, Thew argues. "Animal testing is an ethical issue, so it's important it doesn't get left behind," she says. "Consumers assume that when a company is 'ethical' it will have ended the cruelty of animal testing. It's up to us to make sure that companies live up to that."

THEW CV

2006: Chief executive, British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection
2003: Chief executive, Animal Protection International, California
1999: Chief executive, BUAV
1996: Chief executive, National Deaf Children's Society
1994: Deputy chief executive, NDCS
1992: Principal officer (education), Derbyshire County Council

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