Standing up to bullies

    On 27 January 2004, in a highly publicized announcement, Cambridge University cancelled its plans to build a state-of-the-art primate neuroscience facility. This decision was made after rising estimates for the cost of providing adequate security made the project prohibitively expensive. The increased budget was necessary because extreme anti-vivisectionists had targeted the proposed facility, threatening not only the scientists who would conduct research there but also anyone tangentially associated with the center. Elated members of the Animal Liberation Front quickly announced their intentions to target other animal research facilities.

    The UK is long known for having a vocal anti-vivisection lobby that does not limit itself to waving placards or shouting slogans in the street. Scientists targeted by extremists have been physically attacked and have had their cars, laboratories and homes ransacked. Bomb threats have been sent to their children's schools. Protesters even halted a performance of the English National Ballet because one of its board members was the chief executive of a firm that insures a biomedical company. Elsewhere in the past year, extremists have detonated pipe bombs at Chiron in Emeryville, California, and at the nearby Shaklee Corporation, owned by the Japanese pharmaceutical Yamanouchi, to protest experiments using animals. A group called Revolutionary Cells Animal Liberation Brigade claimed responsibility. They have also vowed to step up their attacks.

    Such tactics have earned anti-vivisectionist groups a place on American domestic terrorist watch lists. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a $50,000 reward leading to the capture of those responsible for the California bombings. After Cambridge University's capitulation on its primate center, the British government finally decided to step up its actions to combat intimidation of scientists by anti-animal research activists. The Home Office is preparing legislation that would designate 50-meter exclusion zones around research facilities, making overt intimidation at such sites imprisonable offenses. A dedicated national police unit focused on such terrorism in the UK has also been suggested. One consumer group in the US, The Center for Consumer Freedom, has called for revoking the tax-exempt status of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) because of suspected financial ties to criminal activities.

    Government steps to protect researchers are welcome, but scientists themselves need to be more proactive in making the case for why animal research benefits the health and well-being of our society. A 'cottage industry' of disinformation involving animal research exists on the Internet (over 1.4 million results were recently obtained using the search term 'animal rights'). A sampling of these sites reveals duplicated images of abused animals and grossly misrepresented quotations attributed to scientists describing their research. By suggesting such conditions represent the norm, anti-vivisectionists distort the record on how animal research is carried out. What is missing from this view, besides the fact that research and testing in animals has improved health and prevented human deaths, is that it is not in the researcher's interest to abuse animals. Not only is animal research expensive, but abused animals cannot provide the reproducible, reliable results on which scientists' reputations depend.

    Animal rights extremists promulgate the view that most nonscientists agree with them. However, polls recently reported in the London Evening Standard show that most individuals, when asked if laboratory animals should be used for medical research, support experimentation if future human lives can be saved or suffering can be alleviated. The public's provisos include use of minimal numbers of animals, prevention of needless pain and suffering, and use of animals only if no alternative exists. Tellingly, many were surprised that current regulations are already in force that cover their provisos.

    Although it is easy to dismiss the extremists' disinformation campaign, more worrisome are published reports, such as in the deliberately provocative 28 February 2004 issue of the British Medical Journal, that question whether insights provided by animal research have truly contributed to clinical treatment of human diseases. After reexamining selected paired animal and human studies, Pound et al. concluded that many animal studies are irrelevant because of poor design or because they address scientific questions already resolved. Their metastudy, however, sampled only a fraction of the animal–clinical research universe. Animal studies whose results obviated human trials because of adverse or dangerous reactions that had not been anticipated from test tube data also were missing. Nonetheless, the results of Pound et al. will undoubtedly be quoted for justification against animal experimentation.

    There is now political support in the UK House of Lords to create a national center to develop alternative methods, such as computer modeling and in vitro techniques, to reduce the need for animal research—a worthy goal. Models based on incomplete knowledge, however, cannot faithfully replicate the complex interacting systems that comprise living organisms. To acquire more knowledge requires animal experimentation, not just tissue culture. This is confirmed daily by the downfall of innumerable in vitro–based hypotheses in light of results from careful testing in animals.

    Current protocol for dealing with terrorism in the guise of animal rights is to close doors and 'circle the wagons'. The result is destruction of a research facility before the first brick is laid. A change in strategy is required. Scientists must regain the public's trust by embracing transparency. Provide guided tours of animal houses to visibly demonstrate good care and good will. Continue to do your part in upholding diligent standards for when and how animal experiments are designed and conducted. Finally, debunk common myths circulated by animal rightists and educate opinion-makers by disseminating the information collected by the British Research Defence Society (, the Americans for Medical Progress ( and the Research!America organization (

    Rights and permissions

    Reprints and Permissions

    About this article

    Cite this article

    Standing up to bullies. Nat Immunol 5, 345 (2004).

    Download citation