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Animal activists flee UK clampdown
13 May 2006
"I personally have been followed continuously by police," says Mel Broughton, one of the UK's most prominent animal rights campaigners. New laws in the country are being used to stifle legitimate, lawful campaigning against animal experimentation, he claims, including the campaign against a biomedical research lab being built by the University of Oxford.
Not all animal activists restrict themselves to lawful methods. This Thursday, three men and a woman are expected to be sentenced at Nottingham Crown Court, having pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit blackmail as part of a long-running campaign against a family-run farm in Staffordshire where guinea pigs were bred for research. Action against the family culminated in the desecration of the grave of a family member. In a separate campaign, Broughton himself was sentenced in the 1990s to a four-year prison term for conspiracy to commit to arson.
The UK government wants to be seen to be clamping down on such activities. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 included provisions that tighten the law on harassment and give special protection to scientists, research labs and companies involved in animal research. It is these laws, which came into force on 1 July last year, that Broughton believes are a restriction on free speech and legitimate campaigning.
The police see the new laws as a powerful tool to combat one of the most successful strategies adopted by militant animal rights activists. In the late 1990s, activists began to strike not only the research labs where animal testing takes place, but also the consumers and suppliers who deal with them. "It is now an offence to target any company that is connected in any way with a research lab," says a spokesman for the police's National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU). "This has allowed us to tackle the harassment that has been creating a climate of fear."
Figures from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) suggest that this approach is working (see Chart). The breakthrough was the new laws, says Philip Wright, the ABPI's director of science and technology.
The number of attacks appears to be in decline, but ABPI spokesman Matthew Worrall is concerned that some of the attacks that do take place are becoming more severe. "We've seen a few examples of car bombs and crude incendiary devices recently. There seems to be a move towards outright terrorism."
Broughton, who co-founded the animal rights organisation SPEAK that is campaigning against the Oxford lab, says he isn't surprised. Though he stresses that SPEAK is involved only in legal protests, he adds: "When the law becomes so repressive that it makes legal protest impossible, it makes illegal protest almost inevitable."
Figures compiled by the ABPI also suggest increasing numbers of attacks related to animal rights abroad. "At the back end of last year there was a displacement of activity from the UK to Sweden and Switzerland, and to a number of other countries, including the US," says Wright.
Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR) in Washington DC, ruefully describes animal rights extremism as "one of Britain's finest exports". A report published by the FBR in February showed a dramatic rise in the number of animal rights related attacks, including arson, theft, bombing, vandalism and harassment in the US (New Scientist, 11 February, p 6).
The strategies being adopted against organisations such as the contract drug testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences also lead Trull to believe that UK groups are moving to the US. "We are seeing a rise in attacks against secondary and tertiary targets - construction companies and banks that deal with Huntingdon Life Sciences in the US," Trull says. In September 2005, the New York Stock Exchange was accused of bowing to pressure from Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) when it postponed the flotation of the closely linked US company Life Sciences Research. European pharmaceutical companies that use Huntingdon Life Sciences' services are also being targeted, says Simon Festing, director of the UK's Research Defence Society.
"There has been a considerable clamour for UK expertise at handling this from police forces around Europe," he says, while Trull says that animal rights extremism has also been raised as a priority with the FBI , which is working with UK police to share intelligence on SHAC members.
So far, the collaboration appears to have been effective. In March, six SHAC members were convicted in New Jersey for inciting violence against people associated with Huntingdon Life Sciences. Victims said they had been threatened, their windows had been smashed, and their cars had been overturned. The six now face up to seven years in prison.
UK medical research agencies say a strong stance against activism needs to be maintained. "If researchers aren't able to work here they may be forced overseas to countries like China and India, where they will be free from harassment," warns Chris Higgins, director of the UK Medical Research Council's clinical sciences centre. If that happened, it would be an own-goal for the animal activists, Higgins says, as few overseas countries have animal welfare regulations as tight as the UK's. "If extremists push research out of the UK, animals could end up actually suffering more."