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  • gumbojill
    Mar 13, 2006
      The Mild Bunch

      Threats of violence, the desecration of graves, incendiary devices …
      this is the stuff of headlines. But are animal rights activists
      really the obsessive extremists that such stories suggest? Vicky
      Allan went on the anti-vivisection campaign trail to find out

      There is a war being waged. Its combatants are animal rights
      activists, and their rallying cries are couched in the language of
      armed conflict. "Animal liberation," according to Animal Liberation
      Front (ALF) founder, Ronnie Lee, is "a fierce struggle that demands
      total commitment." This struggle, he wrote in the 1980s, would
      involve "injuries and possibly deaths on both sides. That is sad but
      Last year, Steve Best, the radical American academic recently banned
      from visiting this country, put it like this: "We are not
      terrorists, but we are a threat. We are a threat both economically
      and philosophically. Our power is not in the right to vote but the
      power to stop production. We will break the law and destroy property
      until we win."

      When the ALF declared war on Oxford University and its planned
      animal research laboratory, it was with these words: "We must stand
      up, do whatever it takes and blow these f***ing monsters off the
      face of the planet. We must target professors, teachers, heads,
      students, investors, partners, supporters and anyone that dares to
      deal in any part of the university in any way. There is no time for
      debate and there is no time for protest, this is make-or-break time
      and from now on, anything goes."

      This kind of rhetoric – reminiscent of the language used by
      terrorists – has helped create the impression that animal activists
      are nutters: violent sociopaths who care little for human life or
      suffering. A fortnight ago in Oxford two groups of protesters
      marched on the streets: one, a student pro-animal research group,
      Pro-test; the other, Speak, an animal rights group campaigning to
      stop the construction of an £18m biomedical research facility by the
      university. Both demonstrations were peaceful, but the atmosphere
      around them was not. Over the few years in which protesters have
      attempted to prevent the construction of the laboratory by not only
      attacking the university but intimidating those who do business with
      it, both town and gown have been subjected to threats and vandalism,
      including the burning down of a student boat house.

      If it was perhaps inevitable there would be a backlash, what was
      surprising was where it came from: Laurie Pycroft, a 16-year-old
      from Swindon, who, on a visit to the town, bought a card from WH
      Smith, wrote on it "Support progress, support the Oxford lab", and
      stood as a one-man placard in opposition to the anti-vivisection
      protest. By February 25, when Pro-test made its debut, the group had
      gathered a 100-strong following. Iain Simpson, the 19-year-old
      student co-ordinating the event, recalls its impact: "As a result,
      now more scientists are beginning to come out and give the reasons
      for animal research."

      The tactics employed against English targets such as Oxford
      University, or Huntingdon Life Sciences in Cambridgeshire, are
      intimidating, slanderous and malicious. But is this an accurate
      picture of the movement as a whole? The police's National Extremism
      Tactical Co-ordinating Unit recently estimated that, of thousands of
      animal rights activists in the UK, only around 20 have committed
      serious acts of violence or vandalism. Having spent weeks talking to
      animal activists in Scotland, the picture here seems remarkably

      At lunchtime on a wintry Saturday, a man dressed in a chicken suit
      stands outside KFC on Glasgow's Argyle Street. He stamps the ground,
      feet and legs numbed by cold inside the clownish striped tights and
      plastic claw. Has he worn the suit before? "Do you think I would do
      this twice?" he replies. Ashby McGowan, school lab technician, is a
      vegan Buddhist. Asked if he would be willing to kill a mosquito, he
      tells me earthworms are known to produce opiates and feel pain.
      People, he says, are always asking about his limits. In fact, he is
      an extreme pacifist for whom non-violence and animal rights are
      inextricably linked. Early on in life, he came to the conclusion
      that causing suffering to any animal – human or non-human – was
      wrong. "We're getting bad press now," he says, "but 99% of animal
      rights people are totally against violence. In human rights
      movements, too, there's always a tiny percentage who are violent
      because they are that way by nature. "

      As an ALF activist during the early 1980s, McGowan once attempted to
      liberate dogs from a laboratory. These days, he has too many
      responsibilities and commitments. When his daughter asked him to
      name the most important thing in his life, he gave the matter some
      thought before replying: "You and animal rights."

      "Not me first?"

      "Animal rights is what makes me worthy of loving you," McGowan told
      her. "Without animal rights there would be nothing great or
      meaningful in my life that I could love you with, so the two of
      these have to be together. I love my daughter and I love animal

      Animals aren't the only beneficiaries of McGowan's compassion. He
      attends human rights protests and has participated in demonstrations
      against poverty and protests against the war in Iraq. "I care about
      humans," he insists. "But there are a lot of people interested in
      human rights, and so few involved in animal rights. I don't know
      why. So many nice people I know eat meat and do things that I find
      abominable, yet they don't see it as wrong. They find excuses for

      McGowan talks knowledgably about the philosophy of animal rights,
      citing Peter Singer – one of the movement's major thinkers – and his
      theory that in prioritising our own kind, humans are guilty of
      speciesism: an injustice akin to racism.

      Few people, I suspect, have a clearly defined moral stance on
      animals. Instead, we are guided by appetite, health concerns –
      perhaps even wilful denial . I, for example, wear leather. I own a
      vintage coat with fur trim. Deep down, I consider the human species
      to be just another mammal with a fancily evolved brain. Yet I eat
      lamb and eggs, convincing myself that buying organic or free range
      helps to limit the amount of suffering caused to animals.

      When I mention this to McGowan, he flashes an awkward, contorted
      grin. It feels like I just admitted to being a murderer. "I don't
      think there's any way that you can slaughter animals nicely," he
      says. "I always relate it to humans. If you ate humans, but did it
      in as nice a way as possible, creeping up behind them and knocking
      them out beforehand, would it be OK? But people can always find an

      McGowan is fairly typical of the activists I speak to. Animal rights
      supporters reveal a range of different reasons for coming to the
      movement, but there are similarities. Many are Buddhist, most
      believe in non-violence, the majority are vegan, few approve of
      leather and some won't even wear wool. Most tell me their
      involvement in the issue stemmed from a gut feeling, and time and
      again, they point out that the phrase animal "rights" is confusing,
      since their aim is to draw attention to the responsibilities humans
      have towards the welfare of their fellow creatures.

      McGowan and his fellow Clydeside Animal Action protesters appear a
      small, lonely band, as they stand quietly outside KFC, stoically
      bearing their placards and handing out leaflets. It's a far cry from
      the mass marches witnessed recently in Oxford; still further from
      the alarming scenes involving violent baseball-bat attacks on
      Huntingdon Life Sciences employees. Yet while it doesn't make
      headlines, this is the consistent face of the animal rights
      movement. At a recent weekday protest in London against Huntingdon
      Life Sciences, I expected to see hundreds of protesters. In the end,
      nine people turned up. There were almost twice as many police .

      Here on Argyle Street, a group of teenage boys approach the placard-
      bearers. Munching on burgers and chicken nuggets, they declare that
      they have no intention of boycotting KFC. No, they don't care how
      the chickens are treated. When one of the activists asks the boys to
      stop eating in front of her because she finds it offensive, they
      walk off laughing.

      Another passer-by stops to chat. "I already knew that most of the
      animals we eat are mistreated along the way," he says. "Everybody
      knows. It's just they turn a blind eye because they like meat so
      much. I eat meat, I love meat. I feel guilty about it but I still
      eat it. It's human nature. People know animals are mistreated, but
      it won't stop them eating them. It's like we're damaging the planet
      but people still buy cars and go on planes. We all do it."

      Animal campaigners are often accused of using overly emotive
      language. Nobody likes being called a murderer, and many people
      consider comparisons to the Holocaust offensive. Ingrid Newkirk,
      head of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), provoked
      anger by pointing out that although "six million Jews died in
      concentration camps, six billion broiler chickens will die this year
      in slaughterhouses".

      In fact, their campaign material often pushes at the boundaries of
      bad taste. All those photographs of sick kittens with weeping eyes
      can seem gratuitously horrific, while the descriptions of live
      scaldings of chickens are repulsive. Arguably, however, such is the
      nature of the beast they are confronting; the problem, they would
      say, relates to the subject matter, not their presentation of it. In
      a world in which experimenting on people or causing human suffering
      is considered abhorrent, these issues are bound to prick our
      consciences. As a society we are in a state of moral confusion over
      our responsibilities to animals. As the Animal Welfare Bill
      (Scotland) makes its way through the Scottish parliament, difficult
      questions are raised: can animals have rights? What is an "animal"
      under the act? Which animals are capable of feeling pain?

      Helen Robinson, a driving force behind Clydeside Animal Action,
      shows me a leaflet which features a photograph of a cat undergoing
      experimentation and the slogan: "Born to die at Hillgrove Farm."
      This picture changed Robinson's life, "and I wouldn't say for the
      better, because it's like an onion, you peel away one layer and
      there's another." After reading it, she joined the protest at
      Hillgrove Farm, Oxfordshire, where cats were raised for animal
      experimentation, and regularly travelled south by bus to protest
      until the unit eventually closed in 1999. Since then, she has been
      involved in many campaigns and, now retired, she devotes much of her
      time to protesting. Her group has prompted the Royal Bank of
      Scotland to withdraw a loan to Huntingdon Life Sciences. She shows
      me a leaflet from a Peta protest she attended in George Square. It
      presents a photograph from inside a concentration camp alongside a
      shot of battery hens. The accompanying quote, from Jewish writer
      Isaac Bashevis Singer, reads: "In relation to animals, all people
      are Nazis."

      The campaign received terrible press for distributing that leaflet,
      Robinson tells me. I'm not surprised. It seems a step too far. To
      equate the farming of chickens with what is widely considered to be
      mankind's worst atrocity seems grossly insensitive. Far from evoking
      sympathy, it tends to provoke a kickback. By pulling out what they
      perceive to be their greatest weapon, all too often the animal
      rights movement shoots itself in the foot.

      But the movement isn't defined by shock tactics. Robinson cites a
      small but growing band of scientists who argue that animal testing
      is not only unnecessary but damaging to human health. This is the
      debate that has been raging lately, the argument that Pro-test
      engages in when it marches with the banner: "Animal testing saves

      Meanwhile, some campaigners use humour to generate media and public
      interest in animal causes. Yvonne Taylor, an Edinburgh-based full-
      time anti-fur campaigner with Peta, has taken part in numerous
      publicity stunts, including parading through Milan's shopping
      streets wearing nothing but a banner declaring: "We'd rather bare
      skin than wear skin." And she was once deported from China for
      stripping down to high heels and nipple plasters during a protest
      against a Beijing show of fur fashion.

      She is not, she says, an exhibitionist. This is simply a way of
      getting a point across peacefully. "People who know me are shocked
      by the things that I do, because I'm not that kind of person. I'm
      quite shy. But I know Peta and if they ask me to do something
      there's a good reason. And it always gets the story in the

      Most campaigners I meet share Taylor's non-violent approach. "There
      is a concern," says Ross Minett of Scottish pressure group Advocates
      For Animals, "that perhaps the actions of a small number of people
      can create a climate of fear and distrust within the animal rights
      movement as a whole." Violence against any creature, he says, should
      be opposed, whether "animals on a factory farm, animals in a
      laboratory or human animals who have jobs to do".

      Meanwhile the extremist tactics of a small minority continue to
      shock and terrorise. According to recent figures from the
      Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, organisations
      which carry out animal research are plagued by threats, intimidation
      and violence to property. Last year, despite a fall in the level of
      general harassment, the number of arson attacks increased.
      Individuals within the animal rights movement ascribe this
      escalation to the extension last year of terror laws to cover their
      actions. According to Robin Webb, spokesperson for the ALF: "Since
      the change in legislation people have started to think if what we
      were doing is now unlawful, we may as well be even more radical,
      more naughty."

      It's difficult to find scientists willing to speak about the threats
      they have faced. Most prefer to keep their heads down for fear of
      further attacks. Although I approached some of the Scottish
      companies which conduct animal research – Inveresk Research
      International and the Roslin Institute – none would talk to me.
      Meanwhile, animal activism north of the Border is so low-key, you
      could be forgiven for thinking that vivisection was non-existent,
      when in fact, tests are conducted on hundreds of thousands of
      animals each year.

      "What's happened in England," says Webb, "is that the websites of
      certain single-issue campaigns, such as Stop Huntingdon Animal
      Cruelty (SHAC) and Speak, list targets for action. This means that
      the ALF automatically gets information, and can go about paint-
      stripping and setting fire to vehicles. If there had been an above-
      the-parapet campaign against an institute in Scotland, no doubt you
      would have seen more of that type of activity."

      For a long time, Professor Colin Blakemore, director of the Medical
      Research Council, was the most high-profile victim of animal rights
      extremists. His 10-year ordeal began in 1987, when he was using
      kittens in research into the effects of sensory deprivation on the
      brain. A small animal rights group called Animal Aid decided to test
      a new piece of legislation by provoking a public outcry over the
      work of one scientist; and unfortunately, they chose him. "I know
      very well the people who did it," he says. "I've spent a lot of time
      talking to them subsequently about exactly how they planned the
      campaign. They went through a process of elimination, reasoning that
      [the target] couldn't be someone working on rats or mice because the
      public – at least at that stage – were not very concerned about
      rodents. It had to be someone [carrying out experiments involving
      animals' eyes], because people are very sensitive about eyes. It
      just inevitably came to me."

      About three years into the campaign, activists got hold of his
      address. Letter bombs arrived at his door, paintstripper was poured
      on his car six times, the windows in his house were smashed.
      Disturbing as his experience was, it now belongs to a different era,
      when only scientists were targeted. Extremists have since developed
      the principle of secondary targeting, which means someone delivering
      water to Huntingdon Life Sciences, or an architect employed by
      Oxford University, could be attacked. Simon Bicknell, company
      secretary at GlaxoSmithKline, recently found the slogan, "Paedo scum
      drop HLS or go bang!" daubed across his garage.

      Paradoxically, while the volume of publicity generated by animal
      rights activists in recent years might give the impression that the
      movement is at a high, in Scotland campaigners seem to consider
      their fortunes to be in the doldrums. John Robins is one of the last
      of the old brigade. A full-time spokesperson and employee of
      Scottish pressure group, Animal Concern, he has worked for the
      organisation since he lost his job after being spotted on television
      campaigning for Greenpeace, on a day when he was supposed to be off
      sick. Robins remembers the glory days of the animal welfare
      movement, when thousands turned out for demonstrations. Having
      witnessed the movement's ebb and flow, he now believes it is
      currently at a low point.

      There have, however, been small flurries of activity. Recently,
      Robins was responsible for igniting a public debate over fur, by
      pushing the Celebrity Big Brother contestant, Pete Burns, into the
      headlines over his monkey-skin coat. It was Robins's call to
      Hertfordshire police that prompted the removal of the garment from
      the Big Brother house.

      Despite the publicity, Robins felt the issue was trivialised, when
      in fact, he argues: "Wildlife crime is a serious matter. The guy
      should be arrested for being in possession. If he'd been seen to
      have cocaine, they would have arrested him."

      He was also one of the first British activists to perform the now
      common practice of stunt activism. In 1984, he and some fellow
      protesters enlarged a frame taken from a video of a primate
      experiment, made it into two Valentine cards and marched with them
      to the homes of two scientists. Inside the cards were the
      words: "Who would love a vivisector?" This kind of stunt seems mild
      compared to today's tactics. What happened in the years between? How
      did animal rights get so cruel?

      Some blame the infiltration of the movement by anarchist groups;
      others say aggression was the inevitable result of frustration.
      Extremism, after all, is a feature of our times, lurking at the
      sidelines of pressure groups such as Fathers 4 Justice or anti-
      capitalist organisations involved in the G8 summit protests last

      Violence, however, has been a key animal rights weapon since the
      days when Lee set up the ALF. Not so much an organisation as a set
      of principles, the ALF operates on a cell-like structure. Anyone who
      carries out an act of animal liberation can do so and take on the
      ALF banner, though strictly speaking, the organisation claims it
      does not condone violence. Those who want to carry out violent acts
      can do so in the name of the Animal Rights Militia (ARM) or the
      Justice Department. Some believe, however, that the same small group
      of people is carrying out actions under all these names.

      Much of the violence is only threatened, or limited to property.
      People claiming they were part of the ARM have staged hoax food
      poisonings. They have also placed incendiary devices in properties,
      and claimed responsibility for desecrating the grave of Gladys
      Hammond, whose relatives bred guinea pigs for research. In 1998, the
      organisation even listed 10 people it would murder if animal rights
      activist Barry Horne died on a hunger strike. But there have also
      been instances of actual physical violence against individuals. In
      February 2001, Huntingdon's managing director, Brian Cass, was
      beaten outside his home by three masked assailants with pick-axe
      handles. Shortly after the attack, SHAC activist David Blenkinsop
      was arrested and sentenced to three years in jail for the assault.

      According to Webb, however: "Even the ARM and the Justice Department
      have never seriously hurt people. They have threatened people, they
      have sent devices that show they are capable of creating a device.
      These groups point to other struggles that have used violence, such
      as the African National Congress. They say Nelson Mandela was
      reviled as a terrorist and is now hugely respected."

      Have these tactics helped the animal rights cause? Blakemore points
      out that recent polls show 90% of the public are in favour of the
      use of animals for medical research, yet, 10 years ago, there was a
      clear majority against. "I think this is because the British public,
      highly sympathetic towards animals as they are, are even more upset
      by terrorism. So terrorists are not helping the general cause. I
      know from my contacts in the animal welfare organisations that they
      just despise the terrorist fringe."

      Over the past year, the animal rights movement has received the
      worst press in its history. Certainly Robins would agree that there
      is a lack of vibrant support. There used to be an animal rights
      group in every university, he says, "but the younger generation now,
      the likes of my son, are more interested in trying to pay back their
      student loans". Yet, it would be wrong to say the wider movement
      despises the fringe. As Minett puts it, the issue is a double-edged
      sword: "If it wasn't for the extremists you wouldn't be talking to
      me now. The issue would never have been raised in the media in the
      way it has."

      Some protesters compare their struggle to civil rights campaigns and
      believe that all animals – whether humans or kittens – are equal. To
      those on the other side of this battle, it's plain that some
      creatures (namely humans), are more equal than the others. Tom, a
      student involved in the recent Pro-test demonstration, declines to
      give his full name for fear he might be targeted. But from his
      perspective, animal testing is a necessary evil. "A lot of the anti-
      vivisection arguments seem to be purely emotional. I've done a lot
      of research lately. Medical progress needs animal testing: the
      evidence is there in the development of some of our most important
      drugs and treatments."

      Back on Argyle Street, there are no baseball bats or death threats,
      just teenage boys wafting warm chicken grease provocatively through
      the air. Julie McCheyne, actress, stands with her placard. This is
      how she thinks change happens. At 10 years old, she walked past a
      stall, picked up a leaflet and decided that from that day forward,
      she wouldn't eat meat. Now a vegan, she has converted her boyfriend
      to vegetarianism and finds it difficult when friends eat meat in her
      company. When I tell her I have a fur-trimmed coat, she laughs with
      shock. "We stripped off naked to stop that kind of thing," she says,
      recalling a Peta campaign.

      Yet her reaction is calm. Here, at the entrance to a city-centre
      fast-food store, there is no talk of blowing anyone off the face of
      the planet, or of smashing windows and sending hate mail. Rather
      there is a quiet, shaming persistence.

      "I know this works," says McCheyne, "because it was what converted
      me. People can campaign in different ways, some people like to write
      letters. But I know this works so I do it and really believe in it."