News in focus: Change to harassment law arouses animal passions

The summer has seen a change in the law to clamp down on the intimidation by animal rights activists, as well as a ramping up of campaigners' emotive and often extreme rhetoric. Francois Le Goff investigates.

The animal-rights movement was thrust into the media spotlight this summer after anti-vivisectionist Jerry Vlasak claimed that the assassination of scientists working in biomedical research would save the lives of millions of animals. His comments, which likened animal experiments to the Holocaust, triggered public outrage and fuelled media debate on animal-rights activism.

Focusing on its most extreme manifestations, coverage of the anti-vivisection movement has given a lot of airtime to campaigners like Vlasak, fuelling the anxiety of medical research charities. But this was quickly followed by Government proposals planned since June to clamp down on animal-rights protesters.

The proposals include amendments to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 to allow staff from the same company to press charges as a group, and giving the police powers to arrest individuals protesting outside individuals' homes.

Animal experimentation deeply divides the voluntary sector. While many campaigning groups see the Government's measures as a blow to civil liberties, the Association of Medical Research Charities welcomed the move, arguing that it will enable scientists to carry out medical research without fear.

The AMRC, an umbrella body representing 112 charities including Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation, has often felt excluded from the media coverage of animal rights issues.

"Anti-vivisectionists have the advantage because they are the only ones to speak about these issues publicly," says its chief executive, Diana Garnham.

She argues that people are afraid to challenge activists' views. "If a researcher or a patient feels that they are going to be intimidated, they do not want to talk openly. This is the main reason why we are not having a debate."

Garnham criticises what she sees as the bullying tactics used by some activists. She gives the example of anti-vivisection group Speak, which targets the bereaved families of cancer victims and tries to persuade them not to give to cancer charities: "They use shocking pictures of animal experiments in labs that aren't even in the UK. These are vulnerable people".

In defence of the work of medical research charities, Garnham points out that charities have a responsibility to stick to their objectives, which define their role and outlines what they are raising money for.

"If your purpose is to find treatments for cancer, it is not to seek out alternatives to animal testing."

Trustee decision

Although scientists are prime targets for harassment, she adds that the decision to fund research involving animal testing is made by trustees, with scientists playing an advisory role.

The confusion surrounding the funding and research process also extends to the public's perception of medical research, and Garnham suggests that the anti-vivisection movement uses this mystification to their own advantage.

"Animal-rights organisations, along with the public, often confuse animal testing, which is required by law for safety reasons, and animal experiments," she says.

British law requires that any new drug must be tested on at least two different species before it goes to market for safety reasons. Animal experimentation is a term that defines broader medical or academic research.

In the wake of the Government's plans and a wave of press coverage depicting anti-vivisectionists as extremists or even terrorists, animal-rights campaign groups have come under increasing pressure to condemn aggressive tactics favoured by some protesters.

Asked why she thinks these groups have so far remained silent on the issue, Garnham said that stories about violent protesters, despite the potential damage to public image, help to keep animal rights in the public eye, with the benefits ultimately outweighing the costs.

Shac (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty), a group campaigning for the closure of Huntingdon Life Sciences, appeared to come off the fence when spokeswoman Natasha Every said that "people who break into laboratories to rescue dogs deserve a medal". But she also explicitly denies that any of the group's members have destroyed laboratories or intimidated people.

Adolfo Sansolini, a leading Italian animal-rights campaigner who recently became chief executive of the British Union of the Abolition of Vivisection, takes a less ambiguous stance and is more prepared to enter into public debate on the issue.

"A small number of violent people can exist in any environment, but they cannot be taken as a symbol of a radically non-violent movement like the one for the respect of animal rights," he says. "But that's not to say that some anti-vivisectionists shouldn't be more self-critical when it comes to tactics."

Public opinion on animal testing is not so much polarised as conditional upon factors such as necessity and compliance with existing regulations.

A report conducted by market research company Mori reveals that, although trust in the existing regulatory system has slightly improved in recent years, eight in 10 people still feel that many experiments go ahead without an official licence. On the other hand, it also shows that 87 per cent of people say they can accept animal experimentation provided it is for medical research, that it does not cause unnecessary suffering or that there is no other alternative.

Mediation role

However the animal-experiment debate polarises the voluntary sector, and the RSPCA often acts as a mediator in the dispute. "We do not have official relationships with organisations like Peta or BUAV, but we look at their concerns and present them to animal-testing companies," says Penny Hawkins, deputy head of the charity's animal-research department.

The charity sits on several ethical committees including the Animal Procedures Committee, a body advising the Home Secretary on animal experiments, and it visits around 30 laboratories each year.

"We have informal arrangements with some companies," says Hawkins. "They ask us to come and visit their laboratories when they want to inform us about recent improvements in the treatment of animals. But we do not inspect.

That's the job of the Home Office".

Hawkins believes that taking extreme action is not productive long term.

She argues that the RSPCA would not be able to get crucial information on the animal experimentation licensing process from the Home Office and companies if it were to launch an aggressive campaign against them.

"People know that we are prepared to work constructively and that we always rely on sound scientific evidence," she says.

But she also claims that organisations such as the AMRC see animal experiments as a minor issue in the pursuit of their research and that they tend to downplay animal suffering.

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