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Animal activists: martyrdom for mice?

How a rag-bag of misanthropes can present themselves as modernday Nelson Mandelas.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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At the animal rights direct action training camp in Kent last weekend, one of the speakers likened themselves to the anti-apartheid movement (1). How did this rag-bag of misanthropes come to present themselves as modernday Nelson Mandelas?

The gathering of 300 people in the Kent countryside was by any objective assessment pretty paltry. According to reports, this collection of women from middle England, Dutch anarchists, and young Americans spent the weekend learning self-defence and Tai Chi, drinking tea, and chatting about ways to stop the UK government’s cull of badgers.

Yet the defensive reactions of the government and the media allow them to think that they are martyrs to a cause, telling the truth that society can’t bear to hear.

Few people will challenge activists’ arguments head-on, and defend the moral value of animal research. Few people will argue that research that saves human lives and furthers scientific understanding justifies the death and maiming of animals. Instead both government and scientific authorities seem to be embarrassed about the matter, mumbling that they aren’t really doing that much research on animals, or that they are looking for ways to try to avoid it.

New Labour has the strictest regulations for animal experimentation anywhere in the world, and its new Animal Welfare Bill takes animal rights further than ever – even forbidding fairgrounds from giving away goldfish. After being lobbied by the Political Animal Lobby, the Labour Party pension fund withdrew its investment from Huntingdon Life Sciences, citing its reasons as ‘ethical’. Meanwhile, Oxford University’s scientific establishment reacted defensively to protests about its planned animal research facility, saying that it was merely concentrating existing facilities, and emphasising that the new laboratories would help to provide ‘the best available conditions of animal welfare and housing’ (2).

When the government stands up for the rights of goldfish, and research scientists pose as defenders of animal welfare, it’s hardly surprising if animal rights protesters think that they are on to something.

Meanwhile, animal rights activists have found that their ‘direct action’ protests can win huge strategic gains and media attention. In the past year alone, activists have won the cancellation of the £24million primate research centre at Cambridge, and the postponement of the £18million animal research facility at Oxford. Tactics such as sending threatening mail, harassing staff and attacking construction sites have led to companies withdrawing funds and major projects collapsing.

The media helps to hype direct actions. As one activist at the Kent training camp noted: ‘I have organised about 20 demonstrations without any interest from the press whatsoever. As soon as we had our first direct action, the phone never stopped ringing with the media asking for interviews.’ (3) Indeed, the press treated the activists’ training weekend as if this were a guerrilla group preparing for power. National newspapers made cloak-and-dagger attempts to infiltrate the camp, and produced wide-eyed reports of activists’ threats to ‘take real action’ against the ‘evil’ scientists. This implicitly justified the camp’s cloak-and-dagger security, which involved keeping the location secret until the last minute.

While the government won’t argue against animal rights protesters, it goes out of its way to try to shut them up. The Home Office banned the US activist Dr Jerry Vlasak (and his wife) from entering the country to speak at the Kent event, and so he addressed the conference via videolink (4). Ministers threatened to bring in the army to ensure deliveries to the Oxford research centre; and the Home Office plans to introduce special laws to crack down on animal activists, such as a ban on protests outside science workers’ homes. This only reinforces activists’ image of themselves as noble, truth-telling warriors. ‘I think it’s an outrage’, said one of the activists at the training camp: ‘They let that Muslim preacher in, but not Jerry. They are scared because what he is saying is the truth.’ (5)

In fact, there is nothing noble about the animal rights cause. Activists tend to spout a fairly mindless brand of misanthropism – indicated by one photo of a young female activist who had scrawled the word ‘terrorist’ on her forehead. ‘In the end it is all about the animals, not about us, we mean nothing’, one of the Kent activists said. Another justified violent action against scientists on the basis that ‘The animals are suffering and how can any of us do nothing to help them?’ (6).

Here we see activists’ contempt for human lives – if ‘we mean nothing’, no mouse should suffer to save a man. It is because animal rightists place human health and knowledge so low that they place the guinea pig so high. The comparison between animal rights and the fight against slavery or apartheid is an insult to these past struggles for human liberation.

If scientific and political authorities stopped jumping at activists’ every threat, and started arguing with them, the protesters’ cloak of martyrdom would soon start to slip.

(1) Animal rights activists hit training camp to sharpen up battle plans, Guardian, 6 November 2004

(2) Biomedical research facility on the Oxford University website

(3) Animal rights activists hit training camp to sharpen up battle plans, Guardian, 6 November 2004

(4) Banned US activist on video link, Telegraph, 6 September 2004

(5) Animal rights activists hit training camp to sharpen up battle plans, Guardian, 6 November 2004

(6) In camp with the animal rights zealots, Telegraph, 6 September 2004

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Topics Politics

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