The government must now state where it stands on animal rights, says Colin Blakemore
For the sleepy Oxfordshire town of Witney, last Sunday was like many others: middle-aged women screaming abuse; surveillance helicopters overhead; police in riot gear; young people in balaclava masks hurling stones.
Yes, it was another animal-rights demo at Hill Grove farm, which breeds disease-free cats for medical research. The bill for policing Hill Grove is now over Pounds 1 million. Since the late 1970s animal rights activists in Britain have done damage estimated at Pounds 200 million.
The Cotswolds are peppered with small farms breeding animals to be consumed for pleasure. No doubt many of them have the highest standards of animal care, but some use intensive methods in conditions that probably make Hill Grove look luxurious. Farm animals are driven to abattoirs that use methods of killing outlawed in labs.
People hunt animals, often just for fun; make bits of them into clothes; ride them; laugh at them in circuses; confine them to zoos; keep them, sometimes in terrible conditions, as pets; enslave them to guide the blind, attack criminals, sniff out drugs and carry burdens; use their images to advertise products. And they eat billions of them.
We also use animals in research, under the strictest law in the world, to advance knowledge and improve the health of humans and animals. Is it not a paradox that, although animal rights activists have criticised most of these activities, it is biomedical research - arguably the most justifiable use of animals - that is most vilified?
Scientists who use animals live in fear of falling under the activists' arbitrary spotlight. I was targeted more than 11 years ago. I and my wife have been threatened with death, my daughters with kidnap. Letter bombs have been sent to my home, which has also been besieged by demonstrators. On Christmas Day an activist accused me, through her megaphone, of stealing her pet cat. I have been beaten up. I can never give a talk without police protection. I have been told to expect an attempt on my life at any time.
Rather than keeping my head down I have tried to answer every accusation. I have built links with animal welfare groups and helped to establish the Boyd group, a national forum for dialogue on the animal issue. I have worked to develop alternative methods and to reduce or eliminate the use of living animals in my own research. Yet the small group of real activists despises me.
Last Sunday there was a statement from cosmologist Stephen Hawking, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge and a sufferer from motor neurone disease. No one is a better-known symbol of the need for medical research. Hawking said: "Why is it worse to use animals for experiments to save lives than to eat them, which the majority of the population is happy to do?" The government now has a responsibility to medical scientists to say unequivocally where it stands on this issue and why. It is time for all who respect truth and reason, rather than the screams of "Scum" and "Torturer", to condemn violence. In a democracy, it is unacceptable that a tiny group should be permitted to act as accusor, judge, jury and executioner.
Colin Blakemore is professor of experimental physiology at Oxford University.