Animal Welfare

April 28, 1995

Each morning, dozens of scientists check under their cars for bombs which they fear may have been planted by animal rights extremists.

Meanwhile, many moderate animal welfare groups are stone-walled as they make their worthwhile attempts to assess the severity of animal experimentation.

Both sides are frustrated. Two years ago, fed up with yet another adversarial encounter on a TV chat show, they got together to assess their common ground. Colin Blakemore, physiologist and Les Ward, of Advocates for Animals, joined up with the Reverend Kenneth Boyd and held talks with funders, colleges and animal welfare groups, all attending as individuals The first result of the talks, just published (page 7), is the conclusion that progress hinges on an increase in openness and accountability among scientists. The group proposes that all research institutions should appoint ethical committees that would scrutinise proposed experiments on animals.

At present, all proposals for animal experiments must be approved by the Home Office, which works in secrecy. Some applications are referred to its Animal Procedures Committee for advice. This committee includes some animal welfare specialists, but it is weighted heavily towards scientists. The group has not so far defined how it thinks the committees would relate to the Home Office or whether they should be compulsory.

The group is to be congratulated for getting together and taking the risk that its leaders will be seen by their peers to have made unacceptable concessions. Are researchers, for example, fuelling extremism by admitting that more could be done to reduce animal experimentation? Are anti-vivisectionists conceding that some animal research is necessary? Both have denied these claims.

Yet by unanimously condemning violence and intimidation against individuals and institutions, they have publicised the important divide between moderate campaigners and extremists who seem to have little interest in the welfare of the human animal.

The group is also to be praised for recognising that openness of information is the key to progress. Professor Blakemore says he is amazed at how little the anti-vivisectionists seem to know about what actually goes on in experiments. Extremism and secrecy have become a vicious circle.

But both sides have a lot to lose from the group's key suggestion - ethical committees. Committees could easily become the bureaucratic nightmare that many scientists fear or the public relations smokescreen that anti-vivisectionists are afraid of. For scientists, there is no guarantee that telling the public more about what goes on in animal laboratories will lead to greater acceptance. For anti-vivisectionists, there is the risk that they could become neutralised by being seen as part of the establishment.

But, at their best, the committees could be very effective. They would force moderate anti-vivisectionists and welfare campaigners to drop propaganda and use well-founded arguments. Both sides would welcome committees that could respond to outside criticism on behalf of scientists: animal welfare campaigners complain that scientists are too scared even to answer their letters when they enquire about experiments.

The detail of the committees, therefore, will be crucial. They must be open and they must include animal welfare representatives. Scientists must keep their nerve and allow scrutiny, being prepared to have some experiments rejected; animal welfare campaigners must grab the opportunity and make sure it works. There will always be dangerous extremists who think it is worthwhile to blow up a scientist. But, if the committees work, the substrate of sympathy and frustration on which they rely will be reduced.

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