Throwing ‘terror tantrums’ for animals

Dispatches showed that animal rights activists are not so much public enemies no.1 as the political equivalent of Kevin the Teenager.

Shirley Dent

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Having watched David Modell’s Dispatches on extreme animal rights groups on Channel 4 on Monday, I will be harbouring a guilty secret when I join other protesters in support of animal experimentation at the second ProTest march in Oxford on 3 June: I feel sorry for the other side.

But who wouldn’t be sorry for these animal-libbers, portrayed in Modell’s report as mixed-up, slightly batty eccentrics? From the baffled looks of security guards as protesters against Huntingdon Life Sciences tried to bring down businesses who have no financial interest whatsoever in the Huntingdon research labs (they were at the wrong building) to the care-in-the-community jamboree that turned out to be the SPEAK protest march against the Oxford laboratory, it was surreal farce rather than heroic struggle.

Shouldn’t we all feel slightly silly at realising that these are the alleged terrorists who have apparently held the government and society to ransom in their fight for animal liberation? Are these really, I kept asking myself, the extremists whom reportedly almost brought medical research to its knees in this country? If so, then this country must be run by invertebrates of the most spineless variety.

As I watched Jon Ablewhite and his chum Kerry Whitburn protest across the road from a guinea pig farm, the image that kept popping into my head wasn’t of committed and universally feared freedom fighters but Kevin and Perry Go Large (1). Ablewhite and Whitburn looked like they had wandered dazed and confused out of a muddy field following an all-night rave. The ludicrousness of a policeman muscling up to Whitburn’s skinny frame with the massed ranks of three or four OAP animal libbers in the background, and declaring ‘I’m boss’, had me reaching for the TV listings to make sure I wasn’t watching The Fast Show or some shelved copy of The Bill. I wasn’t. And now we have this amusingly surreal vignette writ large with Tony ‘Buster’ Blair knocking heads together and threatening to sort out good-and-proper this bother with the Animal Liberation Front crew.

Ablewhite and Whitburn, you may remember, have been widely berated in recent days after being found guilty of conspiracy to blackmail in connection with the removal of the remains of Gladys Hammond, the mother-in-law of the owner of the guinea pig farm they protested against. While the act of digging up Gladys Hammond’s body is undoubtedly depraved and extremely distressing for her family, I do not buy the portrayal of these misguided young men as public enemies number one. As James Panton wrote elsewhere on spiked this week, however much we might support animal experimentation and disagree with the animal rights lobby, we should all be alarmed when people found guilty of conspiracy to blackmail are handed stiff 12-year sentences (see Animal research: extremists are not the problem).

Ablewhite and Whitburn have been described as everything from monomaniac sadists to ruthless fanatics. Judging by Dispatches, none of these descriptions is accurate. They give too much credit to the animal rights extremists and too little to our ability as a society to tell a tantrum from a real threat. The truth is the animal rights extremists are extremely confused.

This came home clearly for me when Jon Ablewhite, who had that affable rave-mystic enthusiasm to be found in many student bars up and down the country, was filmed cuddling a guinea pig. Questioned, Ablewhite declared that he was ‘respecting her individuality’. Now this will strike most of us as a strange comment. But it is one that kept coming up. After veteran animal rights campaigner Keith Mann had conducted a night-time raid on a chicken farm and come out brandishing moving laundry bags full of chickens – one of the funniest sights on TV this year – he was pictured tenderly plucking dirt from a hen’s beak and talking about her ‘individuality’.

This is far more a sign of the times than the ALF’s ‘extremism’. We’re all individuals now, even the chickens. So where do we draw the line with this individuality? Should we respect the individuality of sea-urchins? Earth-worms? Locusts?

Society now expresses a diminished view of what it means to be a human individual. The belief in robust, self-determining individuals has collapsed to leave a vacuum where individuality is measured by vulnerability, victimhood and how much pain you can feel – even that of a chicken.

Consider the case of animal libber Gail. She suffers from a condition that results in severe curvature of the spine. As a child, Gail had undergone treatment that involved having metal bolts and screws inserted through her skull and spine. Her favourite poster while out on campaigns is of a monkey in a lab with a bolt through its head. She empathised with this, treating the monkey as a reflection of her individual pain. It never occurred to her or her mother – a fellow campaigner – that the research being carried out on the monkey might be in order to save other human individuals like Gail from the sort of physical agony she had endured as a child. It was as if they had never grown up and realised that Bambi is a cartoon.

The mother, in this respect, came across as more misguided than her daughter, declaring that she would go into Huntingdon and blow the place to kingdom come – if she was ever diagnosed with a fatal disease. This is a childish fantasy, the equivalent of a tearful tantrum where the child shouts ‘I’m going to scream and scream. And then I’ll die. And then you’ll be sorry’.

Dispatches was fascinating, disturbing and funny by turn. Rather than uncover the terrorism at our door it exposed our confusion about ourselves and how we act on the world as individuals and together. More movements like ProTest where people actively come together to support and celebrate human progress and human lives, might help to clear up that confusion.

(1) See Kevin and Perry Go Large on Internet Movie Database.

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