The Purrfect Protest?

MAX FOREMAN on why animal rights protesters should reconsider their cause.

animal rights animal testing downing site Medical protest science vet vivisection

Did you know: animal activists staged a ruthless attack on the Downing Site a couple of weeks ago, causing serious disruption to university business? No, neither did I. And, I go there every day. 

It appears that a whopping 7 local busybodies rocked up outside the main gates, waved some posters around, handed out a few leaflets and then left quietly (at the request of the university security). No biggie. So, what was all the fuss about? What warranted a news story? 

Because, these people were wrong. 

I don’t tend to get on my soapbox about many things, well, publically anyway, but this issue forces me to. People who shout about how terrible and pointless animal testing is annoy me almost as much as those people who describe themselves as being ‘crazy.’ Being a vet student, people often expect me to be in allegiance with the pink-and-fluffy brigade, just as they expect me to eat only quorn. And be a girl. Unfortunately, I am none of those things. However, in my quest to rid the vet med stereotype, I turned up to my Cambridge interview gnawing on a pig’s leg, whilst defiling young girls and exclaiming my love for vivisection (two of these may actually not be true…).

Animal testing is a well-worn argument. Cries of cruelty, redundancy and irrelevance are met with numerous stats and technical terms. It would be tedious for me to just list, say, what percentage of animal testing is for medical research (it’s 98% by the way), or how the number of tests has been reduced by over a half in the past 10 years, so instead I want to raise a few arguments that you don’t necessarily think of when someone is thrusting a picture of a bald cat, in a dirty cage, in some Chinese lab under your nose. 

The first one (and bear with me, this one is a little boring) is that animal testing labs are strictly controlled. We have, by far, the most rigorous legislation in the world, as is set out in the Animals Act 1986. Labs simply can’t get away with being ‘cruel’ to animals, and keeping them in poor conditions. It’s also not even in the scientists’ interests to do this, because it might have an effect on the results they get. It’s natural for scientists to reduce the number of animal experiments, for cost-effectiveness, and of course they would use a computer instead if they could, because butchering animals is such a faff. 

This next one’s a good’un. Despite popular belief, science isn’t all just learning facts and figures. Yes, if you do history, researching comes in the form of reading a few books and looking at old stuff. If you’re a scientist, research is done by cutting into things; seeing what happens if you poke or feed things. We can’t look up in a book what will happen, because no one actually knows, and there’s no way of finding out unless you do it! Fair enough, some experiments may not be directly relevant to economic growth or medical enhancement, but its human nature to be inquisitive, and is it not hypocritical to stop only scientists from investigating what they want? 

Some hard-line scientists like to justify vivisection by saying things like ‘humans are the dominant species; therefore we have the right to do what we want to everything else.’ I’m not, however, going to defend this stance. It’s kind of like me saying, ‘men are the dominant gender, so we have the right to do what we want to women.’ While true, it would make me even less popular than this article has undoubtedly already made me. But, if we look at it logically, it does make sense. We control when animals breed, where they live, what they do and when they die. Is this not exerting exactly the same authority over animals as testing on them does?   

Okay, so it’s also quite obvious that a dog isn’t a person, no matter how much we stock up on People who don’t know much about physiology and biochemistry immediately assume that this means animal testing can’t be useful to human medicine. Wrong. A lot of physiological functions are shared between the domestic species and us, so they actually work as quite good models. That’s ignoring the fact that the differences between them and us can be used too. Mouse muscular dystrophy, for example, has less muscle wasting than human – if we can find out why; we could find a pathway for the treatment of human muscular dystrophy. Also, what about animal medicine? Is it more acceptable to test on animals for veterinary research than it is for medical research? I thought not.

People also like to assume that ‘animal testing’ actually means torture. Well, we all know what assuming does, don’t we? Vivisection is just the use of animals in an experiment; it doesn’t mean we’re going to be making them eat glass fragments for funsies. On the surface, some of the AIDS experiments look pretty brutal. Not everyone would naturally think of just getting some AIDS and injecting it into a monkey: that’s shady. BUT, of those 100 infected little critters, only 2 of them actually got ill. Is animal testing still inhumane if it doesn’t actually have a detrimental effect on them? 

So yeah, I can kind of see where those sentimental seven were coming from. If I only read the media, ignored all possible benefits, flicked through a few pictures on the Internet and knew nothing about science at all, then I might be tempted to stand outside the Downing Site for a couple of hours holding a sign that said ‘ANIMAL EXPERIMENTS ARE VIOLENT, CRUEL, TORTUROUS etc.’ But I’m not, because I like not having polio.