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What with corpse-snatching and campaigns of intimidation against scientists and animal breeders by extremists, the animal rights lobby has of late toppled off the moral high ground. That is, until last month when a small charity, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), scored a high court victory that found the government guilty of turning a blind eye to the extent of suffering of animals in licensed experiments.

BUAV supplied undercover video evidence that proved the Home Office acted unlawfully by licensing brain experiments on marmosets at Cambridge University as "moderate" rather than "substantial" suffering.

It is the first success for BUAV's new chief executive Michelle Thew. She hopes that fewer licences will be granted as experiments now correctly categorised as "substantial" will no longer pass the key cost-benefit test. It will also mean the public is made more aware of the issue.

Thew, 42, returns to BUAV after three years as chief executive of a US charity, Animal Protection Institute. Her career has included spells as an education officer in Derbyshire and as chief executive of the National Deaf Children's Society. Part of her new role is distancing the movement from the thugs and zealots. "Our supporters are law- abiding people. We are against violence and intimidation. Those people do the movement a disservice."

BUAV was founded in 1898 by suffragette Frances Power Cobbe, and Thew says she wants to reinvigorate the organisation with the spirit of a righteous struggle. But she also wants to tap into the new appetite for environmentalism. She wants the "bag-for-life brigade" to see animal rights as part of the wider agenda and to be aware that tests that decades ago became synonymous with cruelty are still done in UK.

"There is a UK ban on cosmetics tested on animals and an EU ban BUAV led on that will be coming into force shortly. But you can still buy products in the UK whose ingredients are imported and have been tested on animals. The EU needs to draw a line because only then will companies step up to the challenge of alternatives to animal tests."

But does she accept that in pioneering surgery or medical experimentation, animals must suffer to save lives? "Animal experimentation should be consigned to the history books - there are plenty of alternatives. A lot of research is simply carried out in the race to get a paper printed in a scientific journal and is of no practical use whatsoever."

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