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Growth of activism calls for more thoughtful solutions


Animal-welfare extremism is spreading, as reported in your News story 'Animal-rights activists invade Europe' (Nature 451, 1034–1035; doi:10.1038/4511034a 2008). For example, activists blocked plans to build laboratory facilities in Venray, the Netherlands, using a campaign that included painting threats on the laboratory directors' houses.

Although many people are concerned about animal experimentation, most do not understand the rationale behind these illegal activities, which generate considerable fear in the research community. Researchers respond by wanting to reduce transparency and asking the government to increase repression of activists — following the UK example of stricter legislation.

Today's understanding of the motivation underlying both normal and abnormal behaviour indicates that this response could be counterproductive. A better solution would be to channel frustrations into more constructive activities. The extremists have received positive reinforcement from their success in blocking the Venray plans. Reduced transparency will only increase societal concern, and repression risks exporting the problem (as it did from the United Kingdom to the Netherlands). Worse, as the extremists are motivated by frustration, repression may amplify the problem.

More constructive solutions include the provision of some form of democratic control, and perceived justice, to people concerned about laboratory-animal welfare. Membership of animal-protection organizations and voting for animal-friendly parties have not proved adequate. As with farm-animal welfare, society could opt for alternative routes. For example, people could request information from medical charities on their funding of animal experiments (and see Medical treatments developed through animal experimentation could be labelled, in the way that some food products are labelled with information about animal welfare. Increased transparency and transfer of at least part of the responsibility from the researcher back to society are key to resolving the wider problem underlying animal extremism.

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Growth of activism calls for more thoughtful solutions. Nature 452, 282 (2008).

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