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Militant Protesters� �reign of
Fighters for animal
The British government has just announced tough legal
measures intended to stop what the Home Office calls a �reign of terror�
by some militant animal rights� protesters. It is trying to protect both
Huntingdon Life Sciences, Europe�s largest animal testing laboratory and
centre of a four-year-battle with worldwide consequences, and the
construction of a research facility at Oxford University.
By Cedric Gouverneur (Translated by
ROBIN WEBB, impeccably turned out in a suit of
synthetic fibres, looks more like a relaxed pensioner than the alien who
liberates animals from zoos as played by Brad Pitt in the movie Twelve Monkeys (1). But Webb, whom we meet in a Nottingham
pub, is the official spokesman of the Animal Liberation
Front (ALF), a clandestine organisation being pursued by the
anti-terrorist branches of both Scotland Yard and the FBI.
He is a former trade unionist who turned vegan
(2) and militant one morning 25 years ago while walking past an abattoir.
He claims that the ALF is invincible because the state cannot imprison an
idea: anyone who acts to save animals or damage the property of animal
abusers, by breaking windows or setting fires, can claim that action on
the internet on behalf of the ALF. In return, the ALF will provide support
if there is an arrest.
The ALF�s decentralised structure makes it
difficult for the police to infiltrate or dismantle it. Webb, who was
imprisoned for seven months in 1995, says that while the Irish Republican
Army (IRA) also operates through independent cells, it has a centralised
and identifiable command structure. But the ALF does not and there is no
point in arresting Webb to keep him quiet.
Since ALF was set up in 1976, there have been
some 200 activists imprisoned for thousands of actions. The ALF even
claims "martyrs", one of whom, Barry Horne, died on a hunger strike in
prison in November 2001. He had been sentenced to 18 years in jail for an
attack on a furrier�s shop. Webb says he died in the name of the freedom
of animals who are unable to defend themselves.
Britain has always been ahead in animal
rights. The first association for the protection of animals in the country
and the first law prohibiting their ill-treatment both date from the
1820s. Last year the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, which
was founded in 1840, collected �80m (almost $150m) from 300,000
The animal rights� movement includes militants
from all classes. The use of force by fringe elements dates from the
1960s. In 1963 the Hunt Saboteurs Association was set up in the south of
England: Webb says the idea was to get between the hunters and hunted to
save the prey and force the government to ban hunting. In 1973 a small
group began setting to fire to hunters� vehicles, then extended their
campaign to include animal testing laboratories and furriers. They called
themselves the Band of Mercy.
Three years later the activists opted for the
acronym ALF, since at the time "liberation fronts" were springing up in
Latin America and Ireland. (Alf is also short for the name Alfred, which
helps complicate telephone tapping.) The ALF takes the view that violence
may be justified in the short term to obtain justice. Webb points out that
in Britain the movement for the abolition of slavery and the suffragettes
who asserted women�s rights both resorted to unlawful acts. Attacks and
threats by ALF�s militants are designed to increase secur ity costs until
animal exploitation ceases to be economically viable.
Hundreds of activists are prepared to break
the law for the cause: smashing butchers� shop windows; attacking
fishmongers to save lobsters from being boiled alive; setting fire to
abattoirs and furriers; harassing circuses and zoos; attacking mink farms,
despite the damage that the in vasion of these predators inflicts on
native fauna; ransacking laboratories and farms that rear animals for
testing; harassing employees at their homes, breaking windows and trashing
cars (specific legislation to prevent these tactics is to be introduced);
setting fire to refrigerated meat lorries. The ALF regularly claims
similar actions in the United States and northern Europe.
Branded with a red-hot iron
Actions are sometimes more violent. In 1999
armed men kidnapped Graham Hall, a Channel 4 television journalist
investigating ALF militants; they used a red-hot iron to brand the letters
ALF on his back. In 2000 bomb threats against shareholders in Huntingdon
Life Sciences (HLS) caused thousands of City of London employees to be
evacuated. In 2001 the managing director of HLS and a company manager were
attacked by hooded "commandos". In other incidents letter bombs injured a
farmer and a six-year-old girl. People had letters accusing them of
paedophilia sent to their family and friends.
The Animal Rights Militia and the Justice
Department groups advocate violence against those who torture animals.
Depending on the kind of action taken, activists can choose to claim it on
behalf of one of these groups, or of ALF. Some 2,000 heads of businesses
that might be targeted persuaded the government to allow their addresses
to be removed from the accounts that are held in Companies House, the
British commercial register.
The incident in which the young girl was
injured (3) harmed the cause and activists are now being careful not to
hurt anyone, according to a potential target, Mark Matfield, who is
director of the Research Defence Society (RDS), a lobby group for animal
testing. Matfield points out that intimidation is the protesters� main
strategy. The only people to have died, besides hunger-striker Horne, have
been two hunt saboteurs and a woman demonstrating against the export of
live animals, who was run over.
The animal liberation
movement has won notable victories over 30 years. It is almost impossible
to buy a fur coat in Britain. Several farms that reared dogs and cats for
tests have been econom ically ruined. In January 2004 Cambridge university
was forced to abandon a planned neurological research laboratory that
would have involved experiments on primates (4). A campaign to exert
pressure on companies collaborating in the project was coordinated on the
internet by Mel Broughton, a friend of Barry Horne; he has spent four
years in prison for possessing explosives.
Over three years the Cambridge project changed
from a simple laboratory to a fortress, its cost soaring from �24m to �32m
($45m to $60m). That was unacceptable to the university authorities and
they gave up, to the dismay of the prime minister, Tony Blair, who is
concerned about the development of research, and of Mark Matfield, who
talks of a "black day for patients".
Broughton is determined to thwart a new
research facility project at Oxford university. He explains that the
authorities can cope with one demonstration a year, but not constant
pressure on shareholders and suppliers. Contacted in March by animal
rights� campaigners, the group BTP Travis Perkins withdrew almost
immediately from the Oxford project. Last month two contractors,
Montpellier and RMC pulled out and other major suppliers are reviewing
their contracts because of fears of harassment.
The activists� chief enemy, Huntington Life
Sciences, Europe�s largest animal testing laboratory, is still going
strong despite activists� efforts over the past four years to breach its
barbed-wire encircled fortress in Cambridgeshire, which they liken to a
concentration camp. The managing director of HLS and b�te noire of the ALF
for 20 years, Brian Cass, believes in what he does and defends animal
testing because of benefits for patients. The centre uses 70,000 animals
in tests for global industry every year. An HLS official says: "85% are
fish or rodents. Dogs and monkeys account for only 1%" - that is still 700
All kinds of cruelty
In 1996 a journalist, Zoe Broughton, got a job
as an assistant at HLS. She hid a tiny camera under her white coat. In
March 1997 Channel 4 broadcast the result of her six-month investigation,
a documentary, It�s A Dog�s Life. The public saw lab
assistants hit beagles to take blood samples as colleagues looked on
indifferently. The Labour party, which was then in the middle of an
election campaign, withdrew pension fund money from HLS, and HLS clients
broke contracts with the company. Two employees were fired and prosecuted
and the authorities suspended for six months the licence that authorised
the group to undertake experiments. The management team was dismissed and
Cass, who was the former boss of the Covance laboratory, was appointed
HLS opened its doors to us. Their dogs seemed
properly looked after. Most ran up to be patted, though one shook with
fear at our approach. Their cages are clean and organised to allow them to
socialise. The beagles are entitled to 30 minutes� walk a day - albeit in
a corridor. The assistants show consideration, but it is relative: every
day they give the dogs substances mixed with their food or through
inhalation. All the dogs will be killed to allow post-mortems. And they
will never run free outdoors. A scientist who came to HLS after the 1997
scandal said: "We look after them as well as we can. The clinical effects
of stress would distort the results of the tests. Nobody likes using dogs
as guinea pigs, but there is no alternative."
However, a researcher told us: "We are working
on the use of pygmy pigs to replace dogs but we have more data on the
beagle, which has been used in research since the 1960s." An official said
that using pigs generally for research purposes would now be preferable
from a public relations but not a scientific point of view.
Cass points out that in fact 750m animals are
slaughtered in Britain every year for food, compared with 3m for
experimental purposes. He also claims that reactions are culturally
specific - for example, in Britain more money is collected for the welfare
of retired racehorses than for orphaned children. (Moreover, he says,
elsewhere in the world humans relish dog meat.)
The conditions for animal experiments in
Britain are far better than in France. Since 1997 animal testing for the
cosmetics industry has been banned in Britain, but not in France, where
that industry is highly influential.
There have still been allegations of cruel
tests at HLS, such as CFC gases tested on dogs in 2003, 15 years after
they had been banned (5). There was another claim that 37 dogs had had
their legs broken during tests for a bone product that had been requested
by a Japanese company.
HLS claims that before a pharmaceutical or
industrial product is marketed, the law requires it be tested on two types
of mammal - most frequently rats or dogs - to prevent any undesirable
effect on humans or the environment. A Home Office source said, in
relation to the Medicines Act (1968) passed after the thalidomide disaster
(6), that the rules do not require animal testing if reliable data can be
collected using other methods. "There is a strong presumption that animal
testing is probably a compulsory stage in launching products that are safe
and effective for humans" - a strong presumption but not a scientific
certainty. Opponents of testing cite instances in which drugs have had
side effects on people but none on animals, and vice versa (7).
Robert Combes is scientific director of the
fund for the placement of animals in medical experiments (Frame). His
teams are working on alternatives to end testing in the medium term and
are funded by animal protection organisations and pharmaceutical
companies, making Frame a "legitimate target" of the ALF. Combes claims
that the alleged need for such testing has much to do with scientific
conservatism, since basic research has no interest in alternatives.
The huge potential of computer simulation has
been underdeveloped. The need is economic: "in Japan and the US animal
testing is compulsory," says Combes. (The Home Office source confirms
this: "Companies want to sell their products in a variety of economic
regions and organise their testing accordingly.") Combes adds that tests
on animals are simpler; alternatives are under-funded and not a priority.
The pharmaceutical industry campaigns on the "sad necessity" for animal
testing but is stingy about investing in alternatives.
HLS gives Frame a symbolic contribution and is
careful to publicise this. Health is an industry and HLS is the
subcontractor of companies in pursuit of profit: the idea is to launch a
product on the global market at the least possible cost, making sure that
the company is legally covered in the event of unforeseen consequences for
human health or the environment.
A guerrilla war
In the guerrilla war conducted by the
opponents of animal testing, HLS has become a key target. The collective
called Shac (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) publishes on its website (8)
the names of companies that cooperate with HLS and invites visitors to the
site to take action, including using email, fax, phone calls and mounting
regular pickets outside the offices with photos of dismembered
dogs. There are night demonstrations outside the homes of HLS managers and
occasionally violence against property and people. Staff addresses are
circulated on the net. Unlike the ALF, Shac does not officially encourage
or incite unlawful acts, although its leader, Greg Avery, has been
prosecuted several times.
We meet him in London�s Oxford Street,
collecting signatures for petitions and donations for Shac. He says that
the closure of Hillgrove (a farm breeding cats for lab tests that was
bankrupted in 1999) showed Shac how to attack a target by focusing on
shareholders. Concerned about the safety of their staff, HLS shareholders
are pulling out: Barclays, HSBC, Oracle and Merrill Lynch have already
In 2001 pressure led the Royal Bank of
Scotland to abandon HLS, which was saved from bankruptcy at the last
minute by an American investor, the Stephens Group. HLS tried to thwart
Shac by leaving the City of London in 2002 and having its shares quoted on
the New York Nasdaq exchange where shareholders can remain anonymous. But
its auditors, Deloitte Touche, were targeted and had to withdraw their
collaboration. Shortly after, its insurer, Marsh & McLellan, did the
same, forcing the British government to insure the lab directly. Its
Japanese clients have been harassed in Britain, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland
On 25 September 2003 a bomb attack in
California claimed by a "Revolutionary Cells" group destroyed the offices
of a Japanese client of HLS. The British minister for science, Lord
Sainsbury, went to Tokyo to reassure the pharmaceutical industry. The City
talked of "investment terrorists" threatening the research sector and
proposed a financial reward for information that would foil attacks. An
article in the Financial Times claimed that a small
group of activists was succeeding where Karl Marx, the Baader Meinhof
Group and the Red Brigades had failed.
At a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds,
according to Brian Cass, in 2003 HLS obtained an injunction preventing
demonstrators from approaching its offices and the homes of its employees.
Its clients have done the same. Shac is getting around this by focusing on
secondary targets too small to pay �20,000 for an injunction. In four
months 22 companies have broken their ties with HLS. Some have only a
tenuous link with the lab, such as the taxi firm that ferries staff and
Mark Matfield has counted 400 people who have
been targeted, and is trying to get them to form a victims� group: "Some
are suffering from nervous depression. Families are being terrorised." The
Conservative MP for Huntingdon, Jonathan Djanogly, is calling for greater
penalties, like those directed against hooliganism. He believes terrorists
are attacking the principles of democracy.
The animal liberation
movement describes its practices as "participative democracy", contrasting
it with the inertia of representative democracy. Mel Broughton, who
thwarted the Cambridge project, points out that, before it was elected in
1997, New Labour made promises to those working to protect animals. It has
gone back on all of them; Barry Horne died to remind Tony Blair of his
But politicians are too involved with the
oligarchy to act: direct popular action makes it possible to impose a
political agenda on polit icians. Despite industrial pressure groups, the
actions of the defenders of animal rights are influencing political
decision-taking. Matfield acknowledges that their lawful demonstrations
have contributed to the debate: in 1986 Britain enacted the world�s
toughest legislation on animal testing (and last month it proposed
stringent and wide-ranging changes in the laws regulating all animal
welfare). Britain is also preparing to take tougher action against
activists and promising to set up a huge national research centre on
alternatives to animal testing.
Britain is politically split down the middle,
the only choice for the electorate is between Tony Blair and his now
neoliberal socialists or the rightwing Conservatives; there are sectors of
the public that lack representation. The non-violent actions of those
working for animal rights show it is possible to influence parliamentary
democracy. And defend a noble cause.
(1) A film by Terry Gilliam (1995).
(2) There are 4 million vegetarians in Britain. About
250,000 are vegans who use no animal products, including meat, eggs, milk,
butter, cheese, leather or wool.
(3) In 2001 a six-year-old girl was injured when she
opened a package addressed to her father, who had a pest control
(4) The monkeys are conscious: they have an incision in
their craniums and electrodes planted in their brains to study how
neurones work. Advocates of these experiments point to the close
relationship between humans and apes; opponents say this closeness makes
their suffering ethically unjustifiable.
(5) The Observer, 20 April 2003.
(6) Thalidomide prescribed to pregnant women in the
late 1950s led to the birth of thousands of handicapped children.
Opponents consider it proves the futility of animal testing, which had
revealed nothing. But those in favour of testing claim insufficient tests
were carried out.
(7) Alternatives, such as human cell culture and
computer simulation, are described at