Changing perspectives on vivisection battleground
Protesters at site of planned Oxford animal research lab buoyed by historic week
Duncan Campbell and David Adam
August 27, 2005

Outside a derelict building site in Oxford, a weekly ritual is under way. A team of police officers with video cameras films a small gathering. A pair of process-servers in fluorescent jackets stand by with writs to serve on anyone whose face they do not recognise. A 14-page injunction, authorised by the chancellor of Oxford University and nailed to an old lime tree, stipulates how the gathering must behave.

The couple of dozen people who are the object of this attention are supporters of Speak, the organisation that has been protesting against a planned animal research laboratory on South Parks Road in Oxford.

It has been a historic week in this rancorous debate. The family firm that ran the Darley Oaks farm in Staffordshire, which supplied guinea pigs for testing, announced this week that they were closing down because of intimidation by animal rights activists. The following day, 500 scientists and doctors signed a statement from the Research Defence Society (RDS) in support of humane animal testing.

In the Oxford rain, Lynn Sawyer, 38, a midwife from Evesham and a supporter of Speak, said of the closure: "It's absolutely brilliant, although it's a minor skirmish in animal rights terms.

Of the theft from a churchyard in October of the remains of Gladys Hammond, an in-law of the Hall family which owns the farm, she said: "I don't necessarily agree with it, but I don't think it's as bad as what the police and the Halls have done. Nobody mentions the tactics used by the police, which are incredibly violent. Nobody mentions the millions of animals."

"Jubilation," was the reaction of Kristine Downham. "We are obviously very pleased. We are not all nutty animal-lovers that don't like humans, but we do think the way forward is to stop testing on animals and to use more reliable 21st-century methods.

Personally I do not agree with digging up bodies, and I think it's sad for the people distantly connected ... but it obviously works. We can stand here waving placards till we're blue in the face, but the other stuff does work."

Jo Ryan, 44, who has demonstrated outside Darley Oaks, said: "I don't approve of what was done, whether it was animal rights activists or Burke and Hare. I don't think it is the only way, but you can't argue with the fact that it gets results."

The protesters felt that the argument over animal testing was becoming lost in the furore over the grave robbing, and said that many in the medical and scientific community were also opposed to testing on purely scientific grounds but were rarely given a hearing.

One of those scientists is Kathy Archibald, a geneticist and the director of Europeans for Medical Progress.

"The RDS are trying to create the impression that there is unanimous support in the scientific community, and that is not the case. There is enormous doubt about the testing.

"All we want is an open, rational debate, but we can't get this because the media have an astonishing bias. You have the RDS whipping up hysteria about terrorism, and that has been used to prevent debate. There is this ridiculous charade of 'terrorists versus scientists'. Looking at the evidence overall, animal testing is positively harmful."

An early day motion supported by 90 MPs is calling for an independent study into the efficacy of the testing.

Ms Archibald said: "An independent survey of 500 GPs in August 2004 found that 82% of doctors are concerned that animal data can be misleading when applied to humans, and 83% would support an independent scientific evaluation of the clinical relevance of animal experimentation."

Other protest groups say that their message has been obliterated because of a concentration on the tactics of militants. "We are an entirely legal and peaceful organisation," said Dan Lyons, of Uncaged. "We have direct evidence that the regulations have been often breached, but nothing is done to punish the researchers. The debate is all about the extremists.

"There is a huge amount of hypocrisy on the part of the government and the animal research community. They condone the illegal activities that take place in the laboratories but condemn the ones taken by anti-vivisectionists, and what actually happens to the animals tends to get ignored."

Others with a stake in the debate disagree. One of them is Averil Darroch, of Seriously Ill for Medical Research, a group whose patrons include Jonathan Miller and Stephen Hawking.

Ms Darroch said: "Any medical treatment has at some point been tested on animals. We eat 800 million animals a year in this country and there are fewer than three million used in research. We don't live in an ideal world; but the laws in Britain regarding animal testing are the most stringent in the world."

There were 2.8m animal procedures carried out for scientific or medical research in 2003; 85%, were on rodents. About 11% involved birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles; dogs and cats made up 0.3% and primates 0.2%.

Testing cosmetics on animals was banned in Britain in 1997. By then, the big cosmetics companies had already agreed to stop the practice in the UK, and what testing there was had moved abroad.

EU law still demands that all ingredients in cosmetic products on sale in Britain have been tested for possible toxic effects using animals. Similar laws apply to medicines. To get a licence to market a new drug in Europe a company must provide safety data showing it had no harmful effects when given to human volunteers, and two species of animals.

The numbers of animals used to check the safety of medicines in this way has fallen steadily since the 1970s as experiments have become more sensitive and regulations changed.

The LD50 test, in which the dose of a drug is steadily upped until half the animals die, has been scrapped, and automated screening techniques - to test the possible effects of thousands of compounds - have reduced the numbers of animals used further.

Only about 15% of the animals used in the procedures recorded by the Home Office in 2003 were used to test the safety of medicines.

Simon Festing, the head of the RDS, said there was a common misconception that testing drugs on animals was intended to prove they were safe for all patients. Instead, he said, the animal tests were required to screen drugs before they were given to people as part of clinical trials.

Animal rights and anti-vivisection groups cite the possible side effects of drugs such as Vioxx, the arthritis painkiller withdrawn by Merck after being linked to heart attacks and now the subject of hundreds of potential lawsuits, as evidence that testing drugs on animals does nothing to guarantee their safety in humans.

Dr Festing says the failure to spot rare side effects is not a fault of the animal tests, but a problem inherent in the limited scale of clinical trials, which typically test drugs on a few hundred individuals. "To find a side effect that affects 1 in 400 people you would need to use 5,000 animals to get a statistically sound result," he said.

Animals are used for research into everything from our basic biology to how human diseases develop. Much of this effort is driven by the recent revolution in genetics. The sequencing of the human genome has helped scientists in different fields to identify thousands of genes that could play a role in disease. One way to study these is to follow families who pass faulty versions from one generation to the next. A short cut is to use animals.

Karen Steel, a scientist at the Sanger Institute near Cambridge, uses mice to investigate deafness. She said: "The mouse inner ear has virtually the same structure as the human inner ear, and the genes involved in normal function and development of the ear are the same in mice and people. When we find a gene that is mutated and causes a hearing impairment in the mouse, we always find that gene is also involved in human deafness."

Dr Steel said her work with mice had accelerated research and allowed her to break new ground. "There are lots of things you can do in an animal that you could never do in a human."

The animals can be specially bred with specific genes affected, allowing her team to tease out biological effects from the hundreds of genes believed to be involved in deafness. Those opposed to such exploitation of animals would not agree that the sacrifice was justified; Dr Steel said the research is already helping humans.

"The most immediate benefit is that the families involved can be told exactly what the cause of the deafness is. They realise that treatments are many years down the line, but often that's what families really want to know.

"If we as researchers can say, 'The reason your child is deaf is because it has a mutation in this gene - it's not because you smoked when you were four months pregnant or had a drink of white wine when you were five months pregnant,' or whatever, then that brings a lot of relief."

In Oxford, the demonstrators carry on with their allotted weekly four-hour protest under the watchful eye of Thames Valley constabulary. Both sides know there will be many more such gatherings as the debate over animal testing intensifies.

'We're fighting for an alternative'

What do animal rights activists feel about using medicine that has been tested on animals?

Lynn Sawyer, 38, midwife from Evesham, Speak supporter:

We are not against conventional medicine. When I was half killed by a police officer and had a fractured femur and my face cut on a demonstration in 2000 [over Huntingdon Life Sciences] and contracted MRSA, I went into hospital. If I hadn't had conventional medicine I would have died. I came to the informed decision that I would use those things on the grounds that they were already in circulation.

Dan Lyons of Uncaged:

I think it is a bit of a red herring. We can't turn the clock back to undo the experiments.

Laura Brett, 33, animal behaviourist from Abingdon and Speak supporter:

I don't take any manmade drugs, even paracetamol. I use homeopathic medicines. None of my four kids or my animals have been vaccinated. All my kids are really healthy and I feel better than I did when I was 16.

Kathy Archibald, geneticist, spokeswoman for Europeans for Medical Progress:

I have various medical complaints I have had all my life and I use conventional medicine. There is no hypocrisy there because there is no choice as all medicines are tested on animals.

Jo Ryan, 44, who has demonstrated outside Darley Oaks:

It would probably be suicidal if you were very poorly not to take some medicines that had been tested on animals. But we are trying to make a change for the future. I don't want to throw away what we've already got. I work in the NHS so when I talk about drugs not working I know what I'm talking about.

Kristine Downham, 40, temp and Speak supporter from Northampton:

I do use drugs tested on animals and the reason why is because we only know if they're safe when they're tested on humans. Everything has at one time been tested on animals, even water. I'm here for the animals, what do you want me to do? Not drink any water and just die? I want to live and do something to change what is happening.

Mel Broughton, veteran animal rights activist:

All medicines have to be tested on animals by law so we don't have a choice. That's the problem.

Erica Barclay, 53, from Northampton, a former company managing director:

Yes, of course I have used medicines that have been tested on animals. There is no alternative. What we are fighting for is to get that alternative out there.

The victim 'I will not give in'

The executive director of a chemical company was targeted because one of his corporate shareholders had been a client of Huntingdon Life Sciences. He is a member of Victims of Animal Rights Extremism (Vare.)

"We are not involved in any animal testing in any way and it never occurred to me that we would be at risk. When the first threatening letters arrived it was difficult to take them seriously.

"Since March 2003 myself, my company and associated companies and staff have received more than 10,000 emails, over 1,000 letters, over 6,000 phone calls. Some of the emails, letters and phone calls being very threatening in nature, including statements such as 'I'd happily go to prison for stabbing an animal abuser to death', 'I'll find you and fuck you up', 'this won't be over until I see your faces smashed into the bottoms of your coffins' and 'you are now the ALF [Animal Liberation Front] priority target'.

"There have been about 40 demonstrations at company facilities, four hoax bombs, including one at my home, five people have been wrongly accused of being convicted paedophiles, including myself. In my case, over 200 letters were posted to houses within a five-mile radius of my home making the allegation.

"There have also been over 35 visits to the homes of directors and employees. These usually take place in the middle of the night and may involve making loud noise with a siren to wake you and your neighbours or spray painting houses and or cars with graffiti.

"Our house and car have been spray-painted and there have been messages spray-painted on local roads giving my name and saying that I am a killer and that 'we know where you live' and 'the ALF are coming for you'.

"I am not going to give in to this harassment and intimidation, but it has been very hard on my wife and our six-year-old daughter. They have had to see an army bomb disposal team come to the house to dismantle what looked like a parcel bomb. We tried to explain that we have no connection with animal testing, but it made no difference. Once you have become a target it never goes away from you."