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‘Militant’ animal activists trigger British law change

Nature volume 430, page 597 (05 August 2004) | Download Citation

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UK makes it illegal to gather outside homes or harass lab employees

“Exposed: mastermind of training camp for militants” read a front-page headline in the London Evening Standard last Wednesday. But this was not a story about al-Qaeda or political terrorists — the militants in question were animal-rights campaigners.

Animal-rights activists have led sometimes violent protests against biomedical research for more than a decade, particularly in Europe. But last week saw an upsurge in the attention paid to their campaigns in Britain, with the introduction of new laws against their protests and the announcement of fresh money for animal research.

Campaigns against large research facilities have escalated. Image: P. HAYS/REX FEATURES

Legislation unveiled on 30 July makes it illegal to mount protests that cause “harassment, alarm or distress” outside people's homes. Harassing a company's employees will also become an arrestable offence.

Such rules are seen as necessary by many scientists, given the history of animal-rights activism in Britain. Over the past ten years, supporters of animal research have been attacked with baseball bats and had letter bombs posted to their homes. The Standard article claimed to reveal one person who was prepared to train “fanatics” in “unarmed combat” and “infiltration techniques” for future campaigns.

Recently, activists have focused their attention on plans for large, centralized research facilities. In January, one campaign contributed to the collapse of the University of Cambridge's plans for a new primate research centre. Similarly, on 19 July, building contractor Montpellier pulled out of work on an animal-research facility at the University of Oxford after attacks by activists; the university insists that the project will go ahead.

In the same week as the new legislation, pharmaceutical companies pledged £4 million (US$7 million) over four years to fund animal research for medicines. The money pledged is small compared with the hundreds of millions spent in Britain each year on animal research, but scientists see it as a welcome gesture of support.

Observers say that both moves reflect a general change in public opinion. “People are increasingly aware of how our health depends on animal research,” says Tipu Aziz, a neurosurgeon at the University of Oxford who is one of only a handful of researchers prepared to speak publicly in favour of animal research.

But lobbyists caution that it is not clear how successful the new legislation will be at deterring protests. This is the third set of such UK laws introduced since 2001, but the campaigners have proved adept at switching tactics to avoid prosecution, says Mark Matfield, executive director of the RDS, a London-based organization that lobbies in favour of animal research. “The government is focusing on protestors' tactics,” says Matfield. “We need to look at making it an offence to organize these campaigns.”

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