Pushing animal rights to the extreme


The latest 'victory' for animal rights activists highlights the extreme nature of their tactics, reports Joe Humphreys from London.

Just who, if anyone, won the battle of Newchurch is unclear. A family of farmers announced this week the closure of a breeding business in the remote Staffordshire hamlet after a six-year campaign of intimidation by animal rights protesters.

The Hall brothers, who were subjected to, among other things, hate mail, malicious phone calls, a paedophile smear campaign and arson attacks, declared their intention to cease breeding guinea pigs for scientific research.

That business is now expected to go elsewhere, and the Halls are due to return to conventional farming. As for the guinea pigs still "imprisoned" at Darley Oaks, the protesters want them freed, but no guarantees have been given.

One thing that is clear is that the episode has embarrassed - and enraged - a government which had pledged to clamp down on vigilantism and violent behaviour among "eco-warriors". The campaigners' "victory" came just two months after the enactment of new legislation banning "extremist" ecological protests, and in the same week when new measures were announced to weed out supporters of political violence and terrorism in the wake of the London bombings.

The tactics used by animal rights protesters at Newchurch were quite shocking. Police have records of more than 450 incidents at the farm and other local targets since January 2003, including the desecration of the grave of Chris Hall's mother-in-law, Gladys Hammond, whose remains were stolen.

The Halls said they hoped their decision to close would result in the return of the remains but their wish may not be granted. Last April, a group calling itself the Animal Rights Militia said "one-sixth" of the remains were buried in nearby woods. Nothing was found, however, following a police search.

The strongest reaction to the case has come from leading UK scientists and doctors, 500 of whom signed a petition calling for support for animal testing in medical research. The Research Defence Society (RDS), which claimed the backing of three Nobel prize winners, said a small but vital part of medical research involved animals, and while such experiments should be replaced where possible by other methods, they should be allowed to continue to enable "people throughout the world enjoy a better quality of life".

Its statement cut little ice with anti-vivisection groups which believe the scientific community is paying lip service to animal welfare.

"There is no real will in the scientific community to do work with non-animal tests," says Andrew Butler of Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). "It costs money to develop and validate non-animal tests, and those who signed the RDS statement have an intellectual and financial stake in maintaining the status quo.

"Those 500 scientists all work with animals or are involved in this industry - and it is an industry. Asking them to sign a petition in favour of vivisection is like asking a group of butchers if they agree with killing animals for meat, or a group of generals if they agree with the merits of war."

While Peta does not condone the tactics used in Newchurch, it welcomes the farm's closure. Nonetheless, Butler believes change will only come about "through greater advancement of non-animal testing being validated and used". To advance this cause the group, which boasts of 850,000 supporters worldwide, has given $120,000 to researchers in the US to help develop reliable non-animal tests in medical research.

British department of trade figures show that more than 2.5 million animals were used in testing in the UK in 2001, the vast majority being rodents. In Ireland, 52,203 animals were used for scientific procedures in 2002 (half of them being mice and just 35 being guinea pigs), according to the Department of Health and Children, which has responsibility for licensing. The Department stresses that the use of live animals in scientific research is "strictly controlled" in accordance with the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876 as amended in 2002 to give effect to an EU directive on such experimentation.

A number of animal welfare groups are campaigning in Ireland against vivisection but none with the ferocity of UK protesters, who rank among their numbers the clandestine Animal Liberation Front. The group's logo is a set of wire-cutters with wings above the motto "Deeds not words". The main images on its support website are a burnt-out car, and a person wearing a balaclava holding a cute puppy.

Frustrated at difficulties in prosecuting militant protesters, the British government established the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordinating Unit to co-ordinate police investigations of protest "cells". Butler believes such actions are designed at "painting us all with the same broad brush". Denying any element of "terrorism" within the animal rights movement, he says: "No person has been killed by an animal rights activist, but a number of animal rights activists have lost their lives by being run down by huntsmen or shot by circus workers."

Helen Dolan, chief executive of the ISPCA, says she has encountered only about a dozen "militant" animal rights campaigners in Ireland, some of whom act as hunt saboteurs.

"They do see us as being too passive, but we are not passive," she says. "We are working daily in the background on legislation and education. We are looking for a long-term turnaround rather than one-offs."

Describing Britain as the "home of animal welfare", Butler says emotions surrounding the issue run higher in the UK than in most other countries.

While he admits they are dismissed in some quarters as "crazy [animal- loving] Brits", protesters such as those in Newchurch may prove to be ahead of their time.

"The suffragettes who threw themselves in front of carriage horses were considered to be crazy but they proved to be trailblazers," he says. "In years to come, people will see animal rights activists as trailblazers too."