Dignified game of cat and mouse

April 30, 2004

Steve Farrar was surprised to find that the fur did not fly at last week's Times Higher debate on animal research.

There was no heckling, no shouting down. No one walked out, no one cried, no one even handed me a leaflet. This was quite unlike any meeting on animal experimentation I had attended before. When the irreconcilable debate the undebatable, the result is often volatile and, ultimately, unsatisfying.

But in the absence of playground theatrics, an assembly of some 150 was instead addressed by two thoughtful and intelligent protagonists: Colin Blakemore, the head of the Medical Research Council, who looked like some smooth geography teacher, and Gill Langley, scientific adviser for the Dr Hadwen trust, who had the manner of a slightly stern religious education teacher.

Chairing proceedings at the second Times Higher debate at the National Portrait Gallery, Laurie Taylor - somewhere between eccentric headmaster and popular caretaker - had little to do: even the questions from the floor were pertinent and fair, with just the shaking of heads and overly enthusiastic clapping to betray personal feelings.

Both speakers had reason enough to behave less maturely.

Dr Langley has dedicated her life to the abolition of animal experimentation and, although she does not share the extremists' view of scientists as crazed sadists, surreptitiously sneaking to the lab to jam another fag into some hacking beagle's gob, she wants an end to what she believes is immoral suffering.

Professor Blakemore is loud and proud about the use of animals as an unfortunate but crucial weapon in medical research's fight to save human lives. As a result, he has become public enemy number one for the extremist fringe of the anti-vivesection movement, a position marginally less dangerous than that of manager of the Falluja branch of McDonald's.

Furthermore, Dr Langley was his student at Cambridge University, who went on to pen an anti-vivesection pamphlet that first drew attention to her former teacher's work.

Yet the debate remained calm, although not without passion. In front of a largely sympathetic audience, Professor Blakemore was clear and relaxed.

Dr Langley, in the minority, was impressive in her reasoned restraint, despite declaring that the proposal itself - that two mice and half a rat was a fair price to pay for medical progress - was ethically, scientifically and taxonomically flawed.

Do not ignore the rabbits, chimps and dogs - "and cats", she warned, eyes sweeping the audience, as she delayed her punchline: "Like your cat."

I have to declare an interest here: I don't much like cats - spiteful creatures. Despite a bellyful of Whiskas, two mice and half a rat would have been a disappointing haul for my mum's cat, unless she managed to keep the hapless rodents alive long enough to pat around the patio.

But Dr Langley's sole sentimental appeal served as a reminder of how unsentimental the debate was, as it homed in on the question: Do humans have the moral right to experiment on animals for our own gain?

Dr Langley, with the more holistic approach, proclaimed that "an irrational, instinctive belief in human supremacy" underlies animal experimentation.

Professor Blakemore, despite reported devotion to his family cat, disagreed. "I don't feel we should be ashamed of the special treatment we reserve for our own species," he said.

As they shook hands afterwards they even managed a smile.

steve.farrar@thes.co.uk

The next Times Higher Controversial Thesis debate "The ethics of George Bush: good, bad or irrelevant?" between John Gray and Peter Singer is on May 20 at the National Portrait Gallery. Call 020 7306 0055, ext. 216, to book.

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