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12 September 2005updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

The dangers of cuddly extremism

By their emotive rejection of all animal testing, the mainstream animal rights organisations are pro

By Ed Owen

It is “the ultimate evil” and “the most intense form of systematic cruelty in the history of humanity”. Strong stuff. Yet these are not descriptions of the Holocaust or the genocides of Rwanda or Cambodia. It is how one animal rights group chooses to describe on its website the use of animals in scientific research. And far from being members of a balaclava-clad, extremist fringe, the authors of this rhetoric are from a mainstream organisation called Uncaged, which lobbies the government and works closely with many of our MPs.

In the wake of the news last month that Darley Oaks Farm in Staffordshire, which bred guinea pigs for research purposes, was being forced to shut down its business, there has been a renewed focus on the militants within the animal rights lobby who use intimidation and violence to get their way. But in doing so, we must also step up effective scrutiny of the equally uncompromising arguments of those groups that do act within the law. Make no mistake, these so-called moderate organisations are as fundamental in their aims, if not in the tactics, as the hard core.

I should at the outset declare an interest. My three-year-old daughter suffers from cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening inherited condition that attacks the lungs and digestive system. About one in every 2,500 babies born in the UK is affected. Our refrigerator and kitchen cupboards are full of medicines that have been developed with the help of animal research. Using these treatments, most sufferers can expect to live until their early thirties with a disease that few used to survive beyond childhood.

But every one of us has reason to thank animal research; and its value to medical progress is backed by the overwhelming weight of serious scientific opinion. Only last month, 700 scientists, including 500 eminent medical research scientists _ in whose number could be found three Nobel laureates, 190 fellows of the Royal Society and the Medical Royal Colleges, and more than 250 professors _ signed a declaration affirming this position. Yet that position is dismissed out of hand by the animal rights lobby, and not just by the extremist fringe.

The British Union Against Vivisection (BUAV) is one of Britain’s oldest and most established groups, with a history of peaceful protest and legitimate activities against animal research. Yet, like every other mainstream group, it does not merely oppose animal experiments on ethical grounds – namely, that whatever the benefits, the subordination of animals’ “rights” in support of human beings is always morally wrong (which is at least a logical argument, if not a particularly persuasive one in a nation of animal eaters as well as animal lovers). Rather, it seeks to dispute and often demonise current scientific opinion. “As well as being ethically unsupportable,” the BUAV states, “we believe that animal experiments are . . . unreliable [and] are potentially delaying medical progress by focusing research attention and funds on a fundamentally flawed methodology.”

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This accusation of “bad science” – a favourite phrase of the animal rights lobby – is taken even further by Animal Aid, an organisation that claims to have a list of celebrity supporters including Richard Wilson, Glenda Jackson and Simon Cowell. In its response to the declaration from the 700 scientists, Animal Aid claimed that animal research was not only useless but “a proven hazard to human health”. Animal Aid is one of those groups that is critical of many well-known medical charities because of the charities’ association with animal research. It says that organisations such as the British Heart Foundation, the National Asthma Campaign, the Meningitis Trust and Cancer Research UK are being “conned”. The National Anti-Vivisection Society (Navs), another mainstream, law-abiding group, advises its supporters against giving money to these bodies, which it describes as “the bad guys”. Jan Creamer, Navs chief executive, denies this represents a boycott, but argues that it is designed as a service to its members who wish to know which charities to donate to.

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As its description of animal research as “the ultimate evil” suggests, Uncaged is another animal rights organisation that eschews understatement and caution. Its spokesman Dan Lyons justifies Uncaged’s rhetoric, but argues that it should be “seen in context”. “Obviously, if you look through human history, there have been sporadic moments when humans have committed terrible cruelty on each other,” he admits. “But what marks out animal experimentation is its systematic infliction of pain or cruelty on millions of animals every year across the world.”

Thus, it should be of little surprise that in its response to the activities of the militant extremists who forced Darley Oaks Farm to cease its involvement in animal research, Uncaged – an organisation that is at pains to proclaim its law-abiding credentials – blamed the government and media for creating what it described as “the underlying causes of anger and frustration” which drove compassionate people to break the law. Lyons said: “Our bottom line is that we are against violence, whether against humans or animals. The statement we issued was a sociological explanation rather than an ethical judgement.”

It is tempting to dismiss this sort of commentary as peripheral _ and it is true that some groups such as the BUAV were unequivocal in their condemnation of the tactics used against Darley Oaks. But the emotive and fundamentalist language used by mainstream bodies hardens opinion on this highly contentious issue and, in some quarters, risks providing a respectable cover for those whose activities hover at the margins of legality. Many of the legitimate groups continue to attract support, and although most opinion polls show most people favour the idea of animal research for medical purposes, a MORI survey five years ago found that as much as a quarter of the population is opposed to all animal research, regardless of its purpose.

All the law-abiding groups have friends in high places, too. One is Norman Baker, a Liberal Democrat MP and the party’s spokesman on animal welfare. He has worked with many of the lobby groups and is quoted on the Uncaged website as saying that it “keeps alive the flame of hope that one day animal experiments will seem as outdated as sending children up chimneys seems today”.

Baker disowns the emotive language that Uncaged uses and is clear that he condemns militant activity. However, he backs much of the analysis offered by the mainstream animal lobby. “I believe that we should be getting away from using animals altogether,” he told me. “The scientific establishment is conservative, and hanging on to animals in this way is like hanging on to nanny.” He believes that alternatives such as the use of computer modelling or cell cultures, and even using human volunteers, would be a far more effective way to pursue medical research, although he accepts that change is not going to happen overnight. “Pragmatic politics suggests that it is easier to nibble at this issue bit by bit. But I believe that we can, and should, end all such experiments over the next 20 years.”

Such a pronouncement will amaze most of those involved in medical research. Yet Baker is not the first politician to have flirted with animal rights groups in the hope of winning popular support. Before the 1997 general election, Labour sought to win over those in favour of an end to animal research with a promise to set up a Royal Commission to consider the issue. The commitment appeared in a glossy leaflet published in 1996 called New Labour, New Life for Animals, although wiser heads ensured that it got nowhere near the election manifesto. The later decision to withdraw the party’s pension-fund investment from Huntingdon Life Sciences, a company that has been mercilessly targeted by animal rights extremists, was a huge error of judgement.

The number of animal experiments has been halved over the past 30 years as a result of tighter legal restrictions and new alternatives to help research. The welfare of the animals used – 85 per cent are rats, mice and other rodents – has improved significantly in that time, and in recent years the testing of tobacco and cosmetic products on any animal has been banned. Yet the need for animals to be used in medical research will undoubtedly continue to exist for the foreseeable future. In fact, the numbers of scientific procedures carried out on animals has risen in the past two years as new molecular biology techniques require an increase in the use of genetically modified animals.

Such work holds enormous potential for humankind. Yet if the research is to continue, and the great benefits it offers to be realised, then ongoing public support and legitimacy are vital. An extreme minority has managed to force the closure of a number of establishments connected with animal research and will continue to target others. Yet the mainstream groups will be active, too, using legitimate methods to win over people who are rightly concerned about animal welfare. They will continue to use exaggerated and highly charged arguments unsupported by scientific opinion. Those of us who want to see responsible medical research flourish have a duty to ensure their claims are put under the greatest scrutiny. It is within this debate that the vital argument about animal research will be won and lost.

Ed Owen is a freelance political consultant and was until May special adviser to Jack Straw