Containing animal rights extremism

The use of animals in research and development has remained a subject of public debate for over a century. The main arguments continue to be whether it is necessary to use animals in research and whether they are well looked after. Opponents claim experiments are unnecessary and cruel, while supporters point to scientific evidence, independent reviews and legislation to regulate animal experimentation.

The Research Defence Society (RDS) has defended animal research since 1908. Its members include pharmaceutical companies, universities, research institutions and individuals and the society works closely with the media, government and partnership organisations to achieve a better understanding of animal research in medicine.

Although there is good evidence from opinion surveys that the public accepts the use of animals in research, they have little information on the way in which it is regulated. Since the 1980s, this lack of public awareness has been increasingly misused by radical animal rights groups. They target a wide range of first and secondary targets such as research labs, universities or pharmaceutical companies and their suppliers with arson, property damage, real or fake bombs, harassment and smear campaigns. This threat is a considerable hindrance to well-conducted scientific progress and has potentially huge economic implications.

Main benefits of medical research

The development of new medicines and other treatments such as penicillin, vaccines against diseases like polio, blood transfusions, organ transplants, insulin, and even asthma inhalers could not have been developed without the help of animal research.

All major medical and scientific organisations agree that animals are essential for medical progress. For example, a 2004 Royal Society report, The use of non-human animals in research, stated: "Humans have benefited immensely from scientific research involving animals, with virtually every medical achievement in the past century reliant on the use of animals in some way."

Medical research is necessary for medical progress, but there are also economic reasons to continue with world-class research. The UK has a historically strong research infrastructure, which has enabled it to develop many groundbreaking medicines. It continues to offer an excellent scientific base for high-level research and two of the top six global pharmaceutical companies are based there. Pharmaceuticals are consistently in the top three industrial sectors in the British economy in terms of trade surplus. The industry is a major employer, with around 83,000 people employed directly and another 250,000 in related industry.

Extremism in the UK

Animal rights extremism has been evident in the UK for more than 20 years. Both domestic and foreign companies, as well as universities and research laboratories, have been warning for a long time about the threat of animal rights extremism to their work. It has long been feared that animal extremism could discourage high-class researchers from working in the UK, deter investment in these companies and, ultimately, delay medical and scientific progress. So who is behind these attacks?

There are important distinctions between animal welfare, anti-vivisection and animal rights groups. Animal welfare groups, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), are legal and condemn violent actions. Their aim is to improve animal welfare standards and prevent mistreatment through debate and information.

Organisations that call for a halt to experiments on animals include the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, the National Anti-Vivisection Society, Europeans for Medical Progress, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. As with the animal welfare groups, anti-vivisection organisations are media-aware and engage in debate and propaganda.

With the exception of infiltrations, which may involve breach of confidentiality clauses and violation of contract terms, these groups operate legal campaigns and marshal, and sometimes mislead, arguments from the scientific literature. Many of these activist groups are well funded since they collect money on the street, get financial support from their members or rich followers, and sometimes benefit from generous wills.

The extremist animal rights groups can also be sub-divided. These groups combine campaigning with direct action and claim to be legitimate pressure groups. Many of their members have criminal records and any person or institution targeted by them is at great risk of a serious attack. The campaigns have worked by harassing employees.

Organisations that actively support and carry out more overtly illegal activities are not true organisations, but banners under which extremists offend. These organisations work secretly and stay underground. They often run internet sites to keep supporters informed and do not only want to abolish vivisection but have much broader ideological aims. They reject not only animal research but also the meat and fur trades, they oppose big pharmaceutical companies and generally espouse anti-corporate and anti-capitalist ideologies. At most there are 40 to 50 extremists active in the UK.

Legislation and co-ordination

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCAP) came into force on 1 January 2006 and includes several measures to tackle the problem of animal rights extremism. The legislation creates a new offence of causing economic loss by organised campaigns that target any scientist or member of their family, research facility or company in the supply chain using tactics such as intimidation, criminal damage, trespass, blackmail and libel.

The new law should enable police forces and the justice system to clamp down more effectively on animal rights extremism as the security forces now have a clearer legal framework and can act more quickly. SOCAP has already helped to reduce the number of attacks significantly. On 3 August 2005, the Metropolitan Police confirmed that seven animal rights activists were arrested for the first time under SOCAP.

In recent years, there have been a growing number of police and prosecution successes against offenders who target companies and their staff. In addition, many research institutions protected themselves by applying for injunctions against harassment by groups and individuals, which has been very effective in reducing illegal activity. The injunctions have controlled both overt protests at research premises and outside private homes. New clauses in SOCAP criminalise harassment, meaning that those under attack no longer have to resort to civil injunctions.

Another important step in tackling animal rights extremism is increased government funding for the police. The National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit now has extra resources and can provide local police forces with more effective intelligence and advice concerning animal rights extremism.

Animal rights activists have scaled down illegal attacks against research institutions over the last year. There were 85 cases of company or personal property damage in 2005, down from 177 in 2004. There were also fewer 'home visits' to people involved in animal research: 50 in 2005 compared to 179 in 2004. However, according to figures from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, there were more peaceful demonstrations in 2005, but with fewer people attending. There are a number of possible explanations, including the successful prosecution of active extremists or reduced activism in anticipation of the new legislation.

A new worrying trend is the export of animal rights extremism to other countries, with foreign groups copying the strategy and tactics of extremists in the UK. There is a considerable movement in the US that is regarded as a serious domestic terrorist threat because of the potential economic damage it may cause. Animal rights extremism is also spreading around Europe with increasing numbers in Spain, Holland, Germany and Sweden.

Proactive stance

Despite the progress being made, the RDS believes that the research community needs continuing and increased support. The Society believes this should be provided by the government, the justice system, the police and the general public. The aim is to ensure that researchers, their families and any other individuals involved in animal research do not suffer further harm or hardship, and that vital medical research can continue.

Last year the RDS started a government-funded project to help higher education and research institutions, including medical research charities, to protect against and react effectively to animal rights extremism. To that end the RDS, in co-operation with various government and non-government bodies, has created a resource centre that aims to help institutions apply good practices in dealing with the challenges of extremism, and to communicate improvements and refinements back across the higher education and research sector.

Research companies need to achieve a more pro-active approach in defending animal research. On the one hand, the threat from extremists must be answered with tightened security and strict law enforcement. But companies also must communicate with the general public better and explain why, in the light of increased international competition, world class research in this country should continue.

Andreas-Salomon Sussmilch is policy officer at the Research Defence Society in London.

Explore our related content