Proponents of animal testing out in force for first time at rally
Hundreds of scientists and students took to the streets of Oxford last weekend to march in favour of the city's new biomedical lab. The rally was the first time that proponents of animal testing have come out en masse to support their cause. It happened in response to threats from animal liberationists who claim that anyone associated with the University of Oxford is a legitimate target for physical violence.
The building of the Oxford lab has been hampered by persistent threats from animal-rights extremists. The project has been the target of regular protests by antivivisection campaigners, but previously only a handful of researchers had raised their voices to support the lab — most of its backers, including the university itself, had remained silent on the issue.
The event, held on 25 February and attended by around 600 marchers, represents a change of strategy amid swelling grassroots support for the lab and growing indignation over the intimidating tactics of animal-rights extremists. “The university was not keen on raising the ante with a public protest,” says Evan Harris, a local member of parliament. “But once there was this threat to Oxford students, I think the balance changed.”
Harris describes the event as “the best kind of rabble-rousing”, with protestors chanting slogans such as: “No more threats, no more fear; animal testing's wanted here.”
“This is an historic day — we're drawing a line in the sand,” said Oxford neuroscientist John Stein as he addressed the rally. “We must not be intimidated. It's not just about research; it's about democracy.”
Support for the event was fomented by Laurie Pycroft, a 16-year-old blogger who was moved by what he saw as the one-sidedness of the animal-research debate. Until now, public demonstrations have been the preserve of groups opposed to animal research; scientists have mostly kept their heads below the parapet, for fear of personal reprisals. Pycroft created a research-advocacy website called Pro-Test, under whose banner the rally took place. “I'm extremely proud of the turnout,” he told Nature. “I would have been happy with 50 people.”
Meanwhile, about 150 antivivisection campaigners mounted an opposing demonstration. This event, culminating in a rally at the exact spot where pro-research campaigners had mustered just hours earlier, was part of a series of demonstrations by the animal-rights group Speak.
Demonstrators at the Speak rally noted the emergence, for the first time, of large-scale public opposition to their views. One demonstrator called for the issue to receive even wider coverage now that battle lines have been formally drawn. “We want to see a fair and unedited debate on prime-time television,” he said.
It is a debate that traditionally has been played out in actions rather than words. The Oxford lab recently endured an 18-month hiatus in construction after the building company Walter Lilley pulled out in response to bad publicity and diving share prices. Other research facilities, such as Huntingdon Life Sciences near Cambridge, have also been subjected to intimidating tactics and violence from extreme animal-rights groups.
Speaking at the Pro-Test event, Simon Festing, director of the London-based Research Defence Society, called animal research a “moral choice” and “a price worth paying”. And Oxford neuroscientist Tipu Aziz said the march was aimed at “defending our right to better humanity's plight”.
For others, the event was about standing up against what is perceived as bullying from extremists. “We're sick of the intimidation,” says postgraduate research student Kristina Cook. “It's amazing how many people support what we do but are afraid.”