‘Animal research is the only hope for people like me’

Despite hate mail and death threats Andrew Blake of Seriously Ill for Medical Research continues to fight in defence of animal research.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘People ask me, why does a man in a wheelchair care about animal research? But you might as well ask why a man in a wheelchair cares about medicine. Because that’s the truth: you can’t have medicine without animal research.’

Andrew Blake suffers from Friedreich’s ataxia, an incurable disorder of the nervous system that has wasted his leg muscles and left him confined to a wheelchair. He is losing the use of his arms, is easily fatigued, and his speech is slurred. But he knows what he wants to say: ‘For seriously ill people like me, animal research is the only way forward.’

According to Blake, there is ‘such a lot of misleading rubbish about animal research and how it is supposedly cruel and unnecessary’. To ‘combat the nonsense’ he founded Seriously Ill for Medical Research (SIMR) in 1991, a campaign that allows ill people and their carers to ‘show support for medical research, particularly that which includes the unavoidable use of animals’. ‘Almost every drug we buy over the counter has been developed through animal research’, he says. ‘Animal rights campaigners should remember that next time they’re feeling unwell and take a trip to the chemist.’

For Blake, the case for animal research is clear: ‘The use of animals has improved the lives of humans so much. It’s as simple as that.’ He points out that ‘insulin was first isolated from the pancreas of dogs by Frederick Banting and Charles Best at the University of Toronto in 1921’, and is now used to treat millions of diabetics across the world. And how dialysis machinery, used to remove toxic waste from people suffering from kidney disease, was a ‘direct result of work on rabbits and dogs’.

And then there is ‘experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis’, a laboratory-induced disease given to rats, mice and guinea pigs, which allows researchers to develop ‘life-transforming treatments for multiple sclerosis’. Or the polio vaccination, developed using animals in the 1950s and tested on monkeys to make sure it was safe, which has saved thousands of children’s lives. ‘There are about a million people alive today who would have caught polio if they had not been vaccinated’, says Blake.

‘The list of good goes on and on’, he says. ‘It might be too late for me, but others have benefited enormously from animal research – and in the future, people with my condition will benefit too.’

But not everybody shares Blake’s commonsense appraisal of animal research – and as the war over animal research hots up, Blake has found himself in the firing line. He receives hate mail from some animal rights activists. One letter says, ‘I hope you die a slow, agonising death, you disgusting ugly cripple’. Another says, ‘Your support for vivisection makes you a target. You have been warned’. ‘It’s strange that people who claim to care about animals can show such hatred towards people’, says Blake.

But he isn’t fearful. ‘Not at all. These are shallow threats from shallow people.’ And every time he hears of another attack or threatening letter he feels even more fired up. ‘People are carrying out research to improve my life, your life, everybody’s lives. So every bomb found under a car might as well be a bomb under my wheelchair, every horrible letter might as well be a letter addressed to me. It makes me want to carry on, not give up.’

Blake thinks the government’s stance on animals has given succour to the ‘deluded minority’ of animal rights activists who use threats and violence. ‘The government has been very sympathetic to the animal issue, and it has caused them a lot of trouble. When they took money from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) it might have looked like a good thing – but it encouraged the extremists to pursue animal rights, at the expense of medical research.’

What is needed now, says Blake, is less of New Labour’s dithering about animal rights, and instead a more stalwart defence of the benefits of animal research:

‘I would like to see the Department of Health becoming more active, doing more to promote what is positive about animal research. Lots of people still don’t associate medicine with animal research – they see them as two distinct things. A statement from chief medical officer Liam Donaldson, saying what is good about animal research, could cut through the nonsense and show animal research for what it is – something that has improved our lives.’

Despite his illness and the wrath of some animal rights campaigners, Blake is determined to continue his campaign. ‘I have got a very poor quality of life – but if I can leave this world having made it a better place then I’ll do it, regardless of the threats.’

If there were a few more voices like his, the argument for animal research might yet be won.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

See the Seriously Ill for Medical Research website
Read on:
Animal research: a scientist’s defence by Stuart Derbyshire
Animal rights: a timeline of reaction by Stuart Derbyshire
Animal extremism: the heart of the matter? by Josie Appleton
Pig organ transplants: you could die waiting by Stuart Derbyshire

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Topics Politics


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