Threats of violence, the desecration of graves, incendiary devices … this is the stuff of headlines. But are animal rights activists really the obsessive extremists that such stories suggest? Vicky Allan went on the anti-vivisection campaign trail to find out
There is a war being waged. Its combatants are animal rights activists, and their rallying cries are couched in the language of armed conflict. “Animal liberation,” according to Animal Liberation Front (ALF) founder, Ronnie Lee, is “a fierce struggle that demands total commitment.” This struggle, he wrote in the 1980s, would involve “injuries and possibly deaths on both sides. That is sad but certain.”
Last year, Steve Best, the radical American academic recently banned from visiting this country, put it like this: “We are not terrorists, but we are a threat. We are a threat both economically and philosophically. Our power is not in the right to vote but the power to stop production. We will break the law and destroy property until we win.”
When the ALF declared war on Oxford University and its planned animal research laboratory, it was with these words: “We must stand up, do whatever it takes and blow these f***ing monsters off the face of the planet. We must target professors, teachers, heads, students, investors, partners, supporters and anyone that dares to deal in any part of the university in any way. There is no time for debate and there is no time for protest, this is make-or-break time and from now on, anything goes.”
This kind of rhetoric – reminiscent of the language used by terrorists – has helped create the impression that animal activists are nutters: violent sociopaths who care little for human life or suffering. A fortnight ago in Oxford two groups of protesters marched on the streets: one, a student pro-animal research group, Pro-test; the other, Speak, an animal rights group campaigning to stop the construction of an £18m biomedical research facility by the university. Both demonstrations were peaceful, but the atmosphere around them was not. Over the few years in which protesters have attempted to prevent the construction of the laboratory by not only attacking the university but intimidating those who do business with it, both town and gown have been subjected to threats and vandalism, including the burning down of a student boat house.
If it was perhaps inevitable there would be a backlash, what was surprising was where it came from: Laurie Pycroft, a 16-year-old from Swindon, who, on a visit to the town, bought a card from WH Smith, wrote on it “Support progress, support the Oxford lab”, and stood as a one-man placard in opposition to the anti-vivisection protest. By February 25, when Pro-test made its debut, the group had gathered a 100-strong following. Iain Simpson, the 19-year-old student co-ordinating the event, recalls its impact: “As a result, now more scientists are beginning to come out and give the reasons for animal research.”
The tactics employed against English targets such as Oxford University, or Huntingdon Life Sciences in Cambridgeshire, are intimidating, slanderous and malicious. But is this an accurate picture of the movement as a whole? The police’s National Extremism Tactical Co-ordinating Unit recently estimated that, of thousands of animal rights activists in the UK, only around 20 have committed serious acts of violence or vandalism. Having spent weeks talking to animal activists in Scotland, the picture here seems remarkably peaceable.
At lunchtime on a wintry Saturday, a man dressed in a chicken suit stands outside KFC on Glasgow’s Argyle Street. He stamps the ground, feet and legs numbed by cold inside the clownish striped tights and plastic claw. Has he worn the suit before? “Do you think I would do this twice?” he replies. Ashby McGowan, school lab technician, is a vegan Buddhist. Asked if he would be willing to kill a mosquito, he tells me earthworms are known to produce opiates and feel pain. People, he says, are always asking about his limits. In fact, he is an extreme pacifist for whom non-violence and animal rights are inextricably linked. Early on in life, he came to the conclusion that causing suffering to any animal – human or non-human – was wrong. “We’re getting bad press now,” he says, “but 99% of animal rights people are totally against violence. In human rights movements, too, there’s always a tiny percentage who are violent because they are that way by nature. ”
As an ALF activist during the early 1980s, McGowan once attempted to liberate dogs from a laboratory. These days, he has too many responsibilities and commitments. When his daughter asked him to name the most important thing in his life, he gave the matter some thought before replying: “You and animal rights.”
“Not me first?”
“Animal rights is what makes me worthy of loving you,” McGowan told her. “Without animal rights there would be nothing great or meaningful in my life that I could love you with, so the two of these have to be together. I love my daughter and I love animal rights.”
Animals aren’t the only beneficiaries of McGowan’s compassion. He attends human rights protests and has participated in demonstrations against poverty and protests against the war in Iraq. “I care about humans,” he insists. “But there are a lot of people interested in human rights, and so few involved in animal rights. I don’t know why. So many nice people I know eat meat and do things that I find abominable, yet they don’t see it as wrong. They find excuses for it.”
McGowan talks knowledgably about the philosophy of animal rights, citing Peter Singer – one of the movement’s major thinkers – and his theory that in prioritising our own kind, humans are guilty of speciesism: an injustice akin to racism.
Few people, I suspect, have a clearly defined moral stance on animals. Instead, we are guided by appetite, health concerns – perhaps even wilful denial . I, for example, wear leather. I own a vintage coat with fur trim. Deep down, I consider the human species to be just another mammal with a fancily evolved brain. Yet I eat lamb and eggs, convincing myself that buying organic or free range helps to limit the amount of suffering caused to animals.
When I mention this to McGowan, he flashes an awkward, contorted grin. It feels like I just admitted to being a murderer. “I don’t think there’s any way that you can slaughter animals nicely,” he says. “I always relate it to humans. If you ate humans, but did it in as nice a way as possible, creeping up behind them and knocking them out beforehand, would it be OK? But people can always find an excuse.”
McGowan is fairly typical of the activists I speak to. Animal rights supporters reveal a range of different reasons for coming to the movement, but there are similarities. Many are Buddhist, most believe in non-violence, the majority are vegan, few approve of leather and some won’t even wear wool. Most tell me their involvement in the issue stemmed from a gut feeling, and time and again, they point out that the phrase animal “rights” is confusing, since their aim is to draw attention to the responsibilities humans have towards the welfare of their fellow creatures.
McGowan and his fellow Clydeside Animal Action protesters appear a small, lonely band, as they stand quietly outside KFC, stoically bearing their placards and handing out leaflets. It’s a far cry from the mass marches witnessed recently in Oxford; still further from the alarming scenes involving violent baseball-bat attacks on Huntingdon Life Sciences employees. Yet while it doesn’t make headlines, this is the consistent face of the animal rights movement. At a recent weekday protest in London against Huntingdon Life Sciences, I expected to see hundreds of protesters. In the end, nine people turned up. There were almost twice as many police .
Here on Argyle Street, a group of teenage boys approach the placard-bearers. Munching on burgers and chicken nuggets, they declare that they have no intention of boycotting KFC. No, they don’t care how the chickens are treated. When one of the activists asks the boys to stop eating in front of her because she finds it offensive, they walk off laughing.
Another passer-by stops to chat. “I already knew that most of the animals we eat are mistreated along the way,” he says. “Everybody knows. It’s just they turn a blind eye because they like meat so much. I eat meat, I love meat. I feel guilty about it but I still eat it. It’s human nature. People know animals are mistreated, but it won’t stop them eating them. It’s like we’re damaging the planet but people still buy cars and go on planes. We all do it.”
Animal campaigners are often accused of using overly emotive language. Nobody likes being called a murderer, and many people consider comparisons to the Holocaust offensive. Ingrid Newkirk, head of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), provoked anger by pointing out that although “six million Jews died in concentration camps, six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses”.
In fact, their campaign material often pushes at the boundaries of bad taste. All those photographs of sick kittens with weeping eyes can seem gratuitously horrific, while the descriptions of live scaldings of chickens are repulsive. Arguably, however, such is the nature of the beast they are confronting; the problem, they would say, relates to the subject matter, not their presentation of it. In a world in which experimenting on people or causing human suffering is considered abhorrent, these issues are bound to prick our consciences. As a society we are in a state of moral confusion over our responsibilities to animals. As the Animal Welfare Bill (Scotland) makes its way through the Scottish parliament, difficult questions are raised: can animals have rights? What is an “animal” under the act? Which animals are capable of feeling pain?
Helen Robinson, a driving force behind Clydeside Animal Action, shows me a leaflet which features a photograph of a cat undergoing experimentation and the slogan: “Born to die at Hillgrove Farm.” This picture changed Robinson’s life, “and I wouldn’t say for the better, because it’s like an onion, you peel away one layer and there’s another.” After reading it, she joined the protest at Hillgrove Farm, Oxfordshire, where cats were raised for animal experimentation, and regularly travelled south by bus to protest until the unit eventually closed in 1999. Since then, she has been involved in many campaigns and, now retired, she devotes much of her time to protesting. Her group has prompted the Royal Bank of Scotland to withdraw a loan to Huntingdon Life Sciences. She shows me a leaflet from a Peta protest she attended in George Square. It presents a photograph from inside a concentration camp alongside a shot of battery hens. The accompanying quote, from Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, reads: “In relation to animals, all people are Nazis.”
The campaign received terrible press for distributing that leaflet, Robinson tells me. I’m not surprised. It seems a step too far. To equate the farming of chickens with what is widely considered to be mankind’s worst atrocity seems grossly insensitive. Far from evoking sympathy, it tends to provoke a kickback. By pulling out what they perceive to be their greatest weapon, all too often the animal rights movement shoots itself in the foot.
But the movement isn’t defined by shock tactics. Robinson cites a small but growing band of scientists who argue that animal testing is not only unnecessary but damaging to human health. This is the debate that has been raging lately, the argument that Pro-test engages in when it marches with the banner: “Animal testing saves lives”.
Meanwhile, some campaigners use humour to generate media and public interest in animal causes. Yvonne Taylor, an Edinburgh-based full-time anti-fur campaigner with Peta, has taken part in numerous publicity stunts, including parading through Milan’s shopping streets wearing nothing but a banner declaring: “We’d rather bare skin than wear skin.” And she was once deported from China for stripping down to high heels and nipple plasters during a protest against a Beijing show of fur fashion.
She is not, she says, an exhibitionist. This is simply a way of getting a point across peacefully. “People who know me are shocked by the things that I do, because I’m not that kind of person. I’m quite shy. But I know Peta and if they ask me to do something there’s a good reason. And it always gets the story in the headlines.”
Most campaigners I meet share Taylor’s non-violent approach. “There is a concern,” says Ross Minett of Scottish pressure group Advocates For Animals, “that perhaps the actions of a small number of people can create a climate of fear and distrust within the animal rights movement as a whole.” Violence against any creature, he says, should be opposed, whether “animals on a factory farm, animals in a laboratory or human animals who have jobs to do”.
Meanwhile the extremist tactics of a small minority continue to shock and terrorise. According to recent figures from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, organisations which carry out animal research are plagued by threats, intimidation and violence to property. Last year, despite a fall in the level of general harassment, the number of arson attacks increased. Individuals within the animal rights movement ascribe this escalation to the extension last year of terror laws to cover their actions. According to Robin Webb, spokesperson for the ALF: “Since the change in legislation people have started to think if what we were doing is now unlawful, we may as well be even more radical, more naughty.”
It’s difficult to find scientists willing to speak about the threats they have faced. Most prefer to keep their heads down for fear of further attacks. Although I approached some of the Scottish companies which conduct animal research – Inveresk Research International and the Roslin Institute – none would talk to me. Meanwhile, animal activism north of the Border is so low-key, you could be forgiven for thinking that vivisection was non-existent, when in fact, tests are conducted on hundreds of thousands of animals each year.
“What’s happened in England,” says Webb, “is that the websites of certain single-issue campaigns, such as Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) and Speak, list targets for action. This means that the ALF automatically gets information, and can go about paint-stripping and setting fire to vehicles. If there had been an above-the-parapet campaign against an institute in Scotland, no doubt you would have seen more of that type of activity.”
For a long time, Professor Colin Blakemore, director of the Medical Research Council, was the most high-profile victim of animal rights extremists. His 10-year ordeal began in 1987, when he was using kittens in research into the effects of sensory deprivation on the brain. A small animal rights group called Animal Aid decided to test a new piece of legislation by provoking a public outcry over the work of one scientist; and unfortunately, they chose him. “I know very well the people who did it,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to them subsequently about exactly how they planned the campaign. They went through a process of elimination, reasoning that [the target] couldn’t be someone working on rats or mice because the public – at least at that stage – were not very concerned about rodents. It had to be someone [carrying out experiments involving animals’ eyes], because people are very sensitive about eyes. It just inevitably came to me.”
About three years into the campaign, activists got hold of his address. Letter bombs arrived at his door, paintstripper was poured on his car six times, the windows in his house were smashed. Disturbing as his experience was, it now belongs to a different era, when only scientists were targeted. Extremists have since developed the principle of secondary targeting, which means someone delivering water to Huntingdon Life Sciences, or an architect employed by Oxford University, could be attacked. Simon Bicknell, company secretary at GlaxoSmithKline, recently found the slogan, “Paedo scum drop HLS or go bang!” daubed across his garage.
Paradoxically, while the volume of publicity generated by animal rights activists in recent years might give the impression that the movement is at a high, in Scotland campaigners seem to consider their fortunes to be in the doldrums. John Robins is one of the last of the old brigade. A full-time spokesperson and employee of Scottish pressure group, Animal Concern, he has worked for the organisation since he lost his job after being spotted on television campaigning for Greenpeace, on a day when he was supposed to be off sick. Robins remembers the glory days of the animal welfare movement, when thousands turned out for demonstrations. Having witnessed the movement’s ebb and flow, he now believes it is currently at a low point.
There have, however, been small flurries of activity. Recently, Robins was responsible for igniting a public debate over fur, by pushing the Celebrity Big Brother contestant, Pete Burns, into the headlines over his monkey-skin coat. It was Robins’s call to Hertfordshire police that prompted the removal of the garment from the Big Brother house.
Despite the publicity, Robins felt the issue was trivialised, when in fact, he argues: “Wildlife crime is a serious matter. The guy should be arrested for being in possession. If he’d been seen to have cocaine, they would have arrested him.”
He was also one of the first British activists to perform the now common practice of stunt activism. In 1984, he and some fellow protesters enlarged a frame taken from a video of a primate experiment, made it into two Valentine cards and marched with them to the homes of two scientists. Inside the cards were the words: “Who would love a vivisector?” This kind of stunt seems mild compared to today’s tactics. What happened in the years between? How did animal rights get so cruel?
Some blame the infiltration of the movement by anarchist groups; others say aggression was the inevitable result of frustration. Extremism, after all, is a feature of our times, lurking at the sidelines of pressure groups such as Fathers 4 Justice or anti-capitalist organisations involved in the G8 summit protests last year.
Violence, however, has been a key animal rights weapon since the days when Lee set up the ALF. Not so much an organisation as a set of principles, the ALF operates on a cell-like structure. Anyone who carries out an act of animal liberation can do so and take on the ALF banner, though strictly speaking, the organisation claims it does not condone violence. Those who want to carry out violent acts can do so in the name of the Animal Rights Militia (ARM) or the Justice Department. Some believe, however, that the same small group of people is carrying out actions under all these names.
Much of the violence is only threatened, or limited to property. People claiming they were part of the ARM have staged hoax food poisonings. They have also placed incendiary devices in properties, and claimed responsibility for desecrating the grave of Gladys Hammond, whose relatives bred guinea pigs for research. In 1998, the organisation even listed 10 people it would murder if animal rights activist Barry Horne died on a hunger strike. But there have also been instances of actual physical violence against individuals. In February 2001, Huntingdon’s managing director, Brian Cass, was beaten outside his home by three masked assailants with pick-axe handles. Shortly after the attack, SHAC activist David Blenkinsop was arrested and sentenced to three years in jail for the assault.
According to Webb, however: “Even the ARM and the Justice Department have never seriously hurt people. They have threatened people, they have sent devices that show they are capable of creating a device. These groups point to other struggles that have used violence, such as the African National Congress. They say Nelson Mandela was reviled as a terrorist and is now hugely respected.”
Have these tactics helped the animal rights cause? Blakemore points out that recent polls show 90% of the public are in favour of the use of animals for medical research, yet, 10 years ago, there was a clear majority against. “I think this is because the British public, highly sympathetic towards animals as they are, are even more upset by terrorism. So terrorists are not helping the general cause. I know from my contacts in the animal welfare organisations that they just despise the terrorist fringe.”
Over the past year, the animal rights movement has received the worst press in its history. Certainly Robins would agree that there is a lack of vibrant support. There used to be an animal rights group in every university, he says, “but the younger generation now, the likes of my son, are more interested in trying to pay back their student loans”. Yet, it would be wrong to say the wider movement despises the fringe. As Minett puts it, the issue is a double-edged sword: “If it wasn’t for the extremists you wouldn’t be talking to me now. The issue would never have been raised in the media in the way it has.”
Some protesters compare their struggle to civil rights campaigns and believe that all animals – whether humans or kittens – are equal. To those on the other side of this battle, it’s plain that some creatures (namely humans), are more equal than the others. Tom, a student involved in the recent Pro-test demonstration, declines to give his full name for fear he might be targeted. But from his perspective, animal testing is a necessary evil. “A lot of the anti-vivisection arguments seem to be purely emotional. I’ve done a lot of research lately. Medical progress needs animal testing: the evidence is there in the development of some of our most important drugs and treatments.”
Back on Argyle Street, there are no baseball bats or death threats, just teenage boys wafting warm chicken grease provocatively through the air. Julie McCheyne, actress, stands with her placard. This is how she thinks change happens. At 10 years old, she walked past a stall, picked up a leaflet and decided that from that day forward, she wouldn’t eat meat. Now a vegan, she has converted her boyfriend to vegetarianism and finds it difficult when friends eat meat in her company. When I tell her I have a fur-trimmed coat, she laughs with shock. “We stripped off naked to stop that kind of thing,” she says, recalling a Peta campaign.
Yet her reaction is calm. Here, at the entrance to a city-centre fast-food store, there is no talk of blowing anyone off the face of the planet, or of smashing windows and sending hate mail. Rather there is a quiet, shaming persistence.
“I know this works,” says McCheyne, “because it was what converted me. People can campaign in different ways, some people like to write letters. But I know this works so I do it and really believe in it.”
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