Why I...kept quiet during the Oxford Animal Lab demonstration

February 4, 2005

"Is this it?" I thought, as I joined the animal-rights protesters outside Balliol College, Oxford, on Saturday.

Yet another demonstration against the construction of a new animal laboratory was preventing me from working. But it gave me a chance to see what all the fuss was about.

The experience has left me somewhat baffled, mystified even. These people seemed really nice - even to someone like me, who has to perform tests on animals and is therefore, according to the Arkangel magazine I purchased, a "Dr Evil".

I kept that quiet as I chatted to a lovely middle-class couple who had come all the way from London. There was your token Sixties relic playing protest songs on his guitar, quite a few students, some middle-aged housewives and even the occasional respectable-looking businessman. The stereotypical grey-faced, ethnic knitwear-clad vegans were present, but only a few.

I wondered how this rather friendly looking bunch had managed to scare the original contractors from finishing the laboratory.

Did they really believe that we scientists were evil? Could people like that nice middle-class couple have delivered the death threats that some of my colleagues have received?

Apparently so. It appears that when it comes to defending their cute, fluffy creatures, all niceties are laid aside and some turn into vicious terrorists.

And for what? To regulate an area of research already covered by one of the best-written and tightest laws in the world.

A hint of what lay beneath was given by the treatment of the police, who were handing out leaflets indicating where the demonstrators were and were not allowed to go. Accusations of police intimidation had appeared on a website after previous demonstrations. This seemed a world away from the helpful officers I encountered.

One of the protesters yelled through a megaphone at the rather bemused crowd of onlookers. He attacked experiments on animals as being "unscientific" and said that the results they produced were not just wrong but dangerous. The list of drugs with unpleasant side-effects that he rattled off was impressive. To my knowledge, however, each had been removed from the market and, anyway, they represented only a minor proportion of the drugs available today.

Science has its flaws; no one ever claimed that the discovery process is perfect. But then the protester proceeded to refer to vaccines as "the biggest threat facing humanity at the moment". I had to try really hard not to burst out laughing and invite the wrath of these people upon me.

It is unfortunate that my PhD requires that I test novel therapeutic agents on rodents. To be perfectly honest, I hate it. I desperately want there to be an alternative system to test these compounds, and I believe I speak for most researchers. But, as yet, no such system exists.

I would like to see animal-rights protesters acting consistently with their beliefs - signing some form of declaration refusing the use of any medicine or method that has been developed through the use of animals when they, their children or their pets fall ill, for example.

It would be a great opportunity to show conclusively that the activists'

claims were correct - that drugs developed using animal models are indeed terrible. But more probably it would show that the examples the protester cited were the unfortunate exceptions in an otherwise sound science.

If a similar demonstration were to be held in a few years' time, my feeling is that there would not be many protestors taking such a stance. And that would prove that a lack of drugs was a bigger threat to mankind.

Anonymous
Postgraduate student at Oxford University

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