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Winners and Losers in the Animal Research Wars

Michael Conn, James Parker

Future Threat

It is clear that the violence and threatened violence are taking a toll on researchers. But they are also influencing the career decisions of students considering this lifework. David Skorton, president of Cornell University, spoke of his worry that researchers and students were being scared off by attacks from animal-rights advocates. ALF, which took credit for break-ins and property destruction at the University of Iowa during Skorton's tenure as president there, distributed to activists the home addresses of scientists who conduct animal research. "Publicizing this personal information was blatant intimidation," Skorton pointed out, adding that because of safety worries, "numerous researchers are even concerned about allowing their children to play in their own yards." He acknowledged that the cost of such intimidation was difficult to quantify, but he believed it "could be measured by many, many" lives lost. His words echoed those of Richard Bianco, vice president for research at the University of Minnesota, where an attack by vandals in 1999 caused more than $2 million in damage. "The financial aspect is the least of our problems . . . the hardest thing is people see this and don't want to go into science," he said. "Why would they go into science when they can have their work threatened like that?"

Total number of illegal events by animal-rights exClick to Enlarge Image

For the unlucky individuals who happen to become targets, a life devoted to medical science comes to resemble that of a soldier in a war zone. Most persevere, but not all. Who pays when research scientists give up productive careers? We all do. When Ringach announced his decision to stop his research, UCLA issued a statement saying, "we all suffer when animal rights activists attempt to intimidate researchers by physically threatening and harassing them and their families, including young children."

Have all animal-rights activists embraced these terrorist methods? Of course not. But Ringach, Fairbanks, Rosenbaum and we are suffering from those who have. Nonviolent protestors aren't part of the immediate equation of terror, although they sometimes (knowingly or not) help pay for it. Extremist Web sites boasted of their victory over Ringach more than a year after he sent the e-mail that stated, "You win." That boast continues to motivate new practitioners of violence and intimidate scientists who pursue careers in animal research.

We were taken by the matter-of-fact way that Robert Dennis at the University of Michigan puts potential students on notice. His Web site states, almost casually,

Also, you should be aware that due to the highly controversial nature of this research, which involves animal-machine hybrids and, of course, stem cells, you will constantly be at risk from extremist groups and individuals. I have personally received many threatening messages, and one of my personal friends was a victim of the infamous Unabomber. Animal rights groups are also an issue. You must be prepared to deal with assaults from every quarter . . . .

To date, these attacks have been relatively infrequent, and no one has been killed. Indeed, many people who tout animal rights claim that their actions are intended to protect human and animal life. But the leaders of these movements have stated, for the record, their endorsement of every tactic described above. A sampling:

"Arson, property destruction, burglary and threat are 'acceptable crimes' when used for the animal cause." (Alex Pacheco, co-founder of PETA. Quoted in an Associated Press News feature, January 3, 1989)

"I would be overjoyed when the first scientist is killed by a liberation activist." (Vivien Smith, former spokesperson for ALF. Quoted in USA Today, September 3, 1991)

"Property destruction is a legitimate political tool called economic sabotage, and it's meant to attack businesses and corporations." (David Barbarash, spokesperson for ALF. Interview on "The Connection," National Public Radio, January 7, 2002)

"I don't think you'd have to kill—assassinate—too many [doctors involved with animal testing] … I think for 5 lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million non-human lives." (Jerry Vlasak, spokesperson for the Animal Defense League. Speech at "Animal Rights 2003," Los Angeles. August 3, 2003)

These comments strip away any pretense of nonviolence that groups like PETA may claim. This is naked intimidation, the kind that influences the career decisions of young researchers. It is heartening to see scientists fight back—UCLA recently announced a lawsuit against ALF and other extremist groups in response to their harassment of its investigators. And the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act passed last year by Congress is a step in the right direction. But many more steps remain to be taken. The most important of these is that society must understand the connection between its medical care and animal research. They must understand that new drugs, medical devices and procedures cannot enter the clinic without animal testing. And they must know that animal research is heavily regulated and humane.

Federal standards require that all university-sponsored animal research in the United States—including the work of everyone discussed in this essay—is humane. By law, scientists who use animals must minimize any pain or suffering in those animals. They must also ensure that every animal has fresh water, nutritious food, clean bedding and species-specific enrichment activities—conditions far better than those experienced by animals raised for human consumption. Research projects that fail to do any of these things are not approved, and any scientist who violates an approved animal protocol risks the revocation of animal-use privileges. The USDA, which oversees animal research in this country, randomly inspects animal facilities, typically twice a year. And many institutions, including our own, volunteer for additional inspections by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care.

We hope that the rise in antiscience terrorism will be countered by a rise in public support for the value of scientific research. The alternative is greater human suffering. As media officials at UCLA said following the Ringach episode, "To use violent tactics aimed at halting animal research is to take away hope from millions of people with cancer, AIDS, heart disease and hundreds of other diseases."

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