Back animal lab, top surgeon demands

June 25, 2004

One of the UK's top brain surgeons this week attacked the Government for failing to defend animal research at Oxford University as evidence of a growing campaign by animal rights extremists came to light.

Tipu Aziz, who is based at Oxford University's neurosurgery department, told The Times Higher that authority figures across the board - from politicians to National Health Service trusts and universities - were dissociating themselves from the political hot potato of animal research.

Oxford academics said this week that extremist activity was on the increase, with activists trying to halt the building of a new animal housing facility on South Parks Road.

Professor Aziz said: "We don't hear much about the government actually being positively supportive. By not wanting to offend anybody they are achieving nothing. Would the government feel the same way if animal rights activists picketed Porton Down?"

Professor Aziz is planning to host a discussion meeting in Oxford's town hall to explain to local people why his research on animals - and primates in particular - is important.

But with most scientists unwilling to speak publicly about animal research for fear of attack, he and some of his patients may be taking to the stage alone.

One Oxford scientist, who asked not to be named, said that activists had threatened senior university figures at home.

Animal rights extremists are also targeting the RMC Group, which is supplying the concrete for the new building.

One account of action by the Animal Liberation Front, posted on an animal liberation website last week, said: "Headlights smashed, tyres slashed, windscreens shattered and cables cut on cement mixing and digging vehicles at the RMC quarry, Attenborough, Nottingham."

It included a warning to RMC: "Sever your contract with Oxford University, as if you don't actions against you are only set to increase and you will end up remaining on the ALF hit-list as a valid and high-profile target for many, many years to come."

Oxford police are investigating threatening letters sent to shareholders of Montpellier, the construction group building the animal housing facility, according to reports in The Times this week.

Lord Dick Taverne, president of the Research Defence Society, which campaigns in favour of animal research, said: "In some ways animal rights extremism is the most immediate terrorist threat that we face in this country. It requires real anti-terrorist measures."

Simon Festing, director of public dialogue at the Association of Medical Research Charities, said: "Why is it all so slow? The government is making piecemeal announcements and has not let us know what its strategy is.

"In the best-case scenario we may get specific legislation, but that alone won't stop the animal rights extremism. We need improvements to legislation, policing, crown prosecution and liaison between authorities."

Lord Sainsbury has indicated that the government aims to toughen up existing legislation to deal with animal rights extremism. Legislation specifically to deal with extremism is unlikely.

A spokeswoman for Thames Valley Police said there was a difference between peaceful protests against animal research and attempts to cause destruction.

But she said: "We must allow the people building the animal house to go about their lawful business."

A spokesman for Oxford University said: "While the university is prepared to engage in reasoned debate... it is for the police and the Government to deal with the small minority of people who choose to express their opposition outside the law."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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