The Guardian. 22 November 2006.
Cagey questions. The outcry after a documentary about
cruelty at Huntingdon Life Sciences laboratory brought about
many changes in animal testing. Zoe Broughton, who exposed
the abuses, looks at the situation a decade later.
It is 10 years since I worked undercover on animal testing at
Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). As a laboratory technician, I
cleaned cages and held the puppies while tests were
performed. I secretly filmed and caught on camera staff
abusing the dogs so horrendously that the day after my
article appeared in the Guardian, and the film was broadcast
on Channel 4, the police turned up at the perpetrators' doors
and arrested them.
After my exposé, the then chief executive of HLS, Christopher
Cliffe, wrote a report titled Dog Days in Huntingdon: Lessons
From A Corporate Crisis. In this he stated that "the managers
thought that the scenes broadcast were tricks of the camera
and that mitigating circumstances, such as the 'agent
provocateur' behaviour of the infiltrator, would influence
the outcome of any investigation".
I had clear video evidence showing staff hitting and shaking
the puppies as they experimented on the dogs. The two
technicians were convicted of cruelty to animals under the
Protection of Animals Act 1911, pleading guilty to cruelly
treating dogs. This was the first and only time in the UK
that laboratory staff had been convicted of cruelty to
animals. Both were sentenced to 60 hours' community service
and ordered to pay £250 costs.
Some of the tests I witnessed were mishandled. Staff didn't
always measure out the capsule doses correctly, and on
another test I saw them inject syringes straight into the bin
when they couldn't locate a puppy's veins. This had huge
implications for the laboratory. HLS is the largest
contract-testing laboratory in Europe, performing tests for
many big pharmaceutical companies. Many withdrew their work
after the programme was broadcast, and within a few weeks the
HLS share price fell from 126p to 54p.
In HLS's 1997 annual report, the chairman, Roger Pinnington,
stated: "Huntingdon suffered from a collapse in confidence
from a number of its previously supportive study sponsors
following allegations in April/May 1997 of malpractice ..."
The Home Office conducted a full investigation into the
Cambridgeshire company and "identified shortcomings relating
to the care, treatment and handling of animals". As a result
Huntingdon's licence to operate was revoked. The then Home
Office minister, George Howarth, told parliament in a written
answer that "the revocation of the licence would result with
closure of the company and a loss of 1,400 jobs". The Home
Office allowed Huntingdon to continue operating and to apply
for a replacement certificate subject to 16 conditions to
prevent any reoccurrence of the events shown in the
So, 10 years on, have things changed?
In 1997, cosmetic, alcohol and tobacco testing was banned in
the UK, and in 1998 testing of cosmetic ingredients was also
banned. But the total number of procedures on animals in UK
laboratories was 2,709,631 in 1995, and for 2005 it was up to
There is now the 2005 Freedom of Information Act and, as
Simon Festing, from the Research Defence Society, says:
"There is greater openness from the scientific community and
a willingness to explain why we need to use animals in
But the British Union Against Vivisection (Buav) campaigns
director, Alistair Currie, points out: "Both HLS and the Home
Office have used the excuse of 'commercial confidentiality'
to refuse several requests since the act was passed. So HLS
can have their PR line, but the public has no way of holding
them to account."
And what of protecting the animals inside the laboratories?
Festing says: "Improvements in animal welfare [have been]
brought about by better standards of housing and a culture of
care in various institutions, and a greater commitment to the
3 Rs." The 3 Rs are: reduce the number of animals being used;
refine the experiments so that animals suffer as little as
possible; and replace animal experiments if possible. Festing
adds: "The 2005 Freedom of Information Act means that the UK
has more info about animal research in the public domain than
any other country in the world."
I have been requesting a tour of HLS, but its openness hasn't
yet stretched to me gaining access. Its marketing director,
Andrew Gay, told me that the dogs are now paired up all the
time - not kept in cages on their own - and they have a shelf
for a bed. In terms of the animal welfare, they now have a
"culture of care", which is, as he put it, "quite a nebulous
When I asked if he would tell me what other changes have been
made, an email sent on his behalf said: "I will not be
sending you any updates on changes that have occurred here in
the past 10 years. As I mentioned, some of the managers here
have long memories and have had to deal with the many
repercussions (not animal welfare) which have become
associated with your film, and would not wish the company to
help you with your article."
The staff, including their managers, have had a tough time.
Animal rights extremists have been targeting the company.
Brian Cass, the managing director, was attacked with pickaxe
handles outside his home in February 2001. Shareholders have
had messages spray painted on their houses and acid poured on
their cars. The government has strengthened the police's
ability to deal with animal rights extremism and has
established the National Extremism Tactical Coordinating
Unit. But it is costing Cambridgeshire police £1m a year to
investigate and prosecute protesters against HLS. Over the
past decade, campaign groups have begun using a new style of
protest, targeting funders and shareholders. At one point,
this forced the HLS share price to below 2p. A House of
Commons research paper stated that "the combination of
violent attacks and targeting of the company's financial
support pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy".
The animal testing industry is not without its campaigners,
and there has been a small wave of protest in support; 20,000
people have signed up to The People's Petition, which can be
accessed through the HLS website and which gives people the
opportunity to register their support for animal testing and
for those who work in the industry.
A young student, Laurie Pycroft, angry at the animal rights
protesters started a pro movement. Last June, the Pro Test
campaign attracted hundreds of supporters, who marched
through the streets of Oxford in support of the new £18m
research laboratory being built there. Driving past the site,
I noticed that the builders were wearing balaclavas to hide
their identities, vehicles were unmarked, and a 15-ft fence
had been erected.
In the past 10 years there have been laws passed that can be
used against the animal rights campaigners, such as the
Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 and the
Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Activists from Stop
Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (Shac) and the Oxford Speak group
have had injunctions served on them under the Protection from
Harassment Act, which protects the staff from assault,
molesting, harassing and threatening behaviour. At HLS, Gay
says: "Violent acts have been reduced since legislation came
But the wording of these new laws means that police could use
them on any campaigners, and this could affect our rights to
protest. As environmentalist and journalist George Monbiot
said: "The government has used the excuse of violent animal
rights protest to legislate against protest of all kinds,
however peaceful. The police now have the powers to stop
anyone from protesting anywhere by any means." But how can we
be sure that what I witnessed will not happen again. The Home
Office made 25 spot-checks at HLS in the past year, but they
were making unannounced visits when I was there and they
didn't pick up on the animal abuse or the fiddling of the
Gem D'Silva, Buav's investigations director, says: "It has
undoubtedly got harder to go undercover. The industry has
acknowledged that infiltration and investigation of labs is
the best tool those campaigning for an end to experiments on
animals have got. So it is not surprising that in the past 10
years companies like HLS have spent vast sums trying to keep
us out by doing things such as going on anti-infiltration
courses and using stricter vetting procedures."
Ten years on, my views on animal testing are the same: I've
never been against it. I went into HLS because I am a
journalist and was working for Small World Productions on a
Channel 4 documentary. But it still seems that the only way
we'll really know what is going on in laboratories is when
someone straps on a spy camera kit and broadcasts the results
· Catalogue of change
1997 Cosmetic, alcohol and tobacco testing on animals banned
in the UK.
1997 Extremist targeting of single companies emerges as a
1998 Testing of cosmetic ingredients banned.
1999 Home Office introduced local ethical review.
1999 Researchers first become concerned about the increasing
burden of regulation to carry out quality scientific
1999 Agreement formalised not to give licences for great ape
2001-05 Three inquiries in four years about the validity,
ethics and legislation of animal research; all confirmed that
animal research could contribute to medical and veterinary
advances. These were carried out by a House of Lords select
committee, the Animal Procedures Committee, and the Nuffield
Council on Bioethics.
2004 Government sets up a National Centre for the 3Rs to take
forward an ethical approach to animal research.
2005 Freedom of Information Act means that the UK has more
information about animal research in the public domain than
any other country.
2005 Government commits to tackling animal rights extremism.
2006M Companies and research institutions now have a culture
of greater openness, such as statements on websites and
allowing the media access to research centres.