The following written tirade is an unedited companion piece for a section I recorded for the latest Pod Delusion . It's something I've been wanting to get off my chest for some time now. Please send all hate mail and death threats to the email address at the bottom.
Animal Rights Protesters: I Protest!
As a doctor of neuroscience who is also a comedian, I've had more than my fair share of bizarre experiences. But I have to say, it’s weird, sitting down to write something that you know in advance will probably cause you a great deal of unnecessary hassle from people who probably will see a few key-words in it and make wild conclusions completely in defiance of the actual views contained within it. But it’s come to the point where I have to get this off my chest. I can’t go on living a lie any more, I have to be me. Here goes…
I am trained and experienced in animal testing, and I am not ashamed of this fact. There, I’m out.
Recent events have compelled me to make this admission. Firstly, there is increasing speculation over an animal rights campaign and protest targeted at my former workplace. Good, hard-working people who have done nothing wrong, who are actively trying to further scientific and medical understanding, are now having to undergo extra security checks and procedures as their personal safety is under threat. Also, there was the recent news story about the protesters jailed for their hate campaign targeting Huntington Life Sciences. Oddly, so familiar is this occurrence that a quick google search brought an almost identical story from over a year ago.
I need to make several things clear first and foremost. Firstly, I have no problem with people being opposed to animal testing on moral grounds. I disagree with the majority of arguments put forward to defend this position, but the conclusion that 'innocent creatures suffering is bad' is a very hard one to disagree with, and I won't attempt to do so. Also, to me there is something quite inspiring and, ironically, uniquely human about opposing members of your own species on behalf of another. You don’t get that anywhere else, I’ve yet to see Lions taking on other lions in order to defend the grasshoppers, and I doubt I ever will outside the realm of a CGI summer kids movie. Similarly, any vegetarians get my grudging respect, as I doubt I could ever be one, not least because my father, a borderline carnivore, would likely disown me.
I don't get vegans, though. Bonkers, the lot of them.
My main beef (yes I said beef, deal with it) is with the violent protesters and campaigners who make the lives of scientists a lot harder than they need to be. To these people, on behalf of myself and my fellow researchers, I'd like to make the following statement;
Fuck you! Fuck you and the tofu-based gluten free horse you rode in on!
Now, while they’ve gone off in a frothy rage to find out where my deceased relatives are buried or to construct some sort of letter bomb, here’s why I felt it necessary to say that.
I want to make it clear that Huntington’s life sciences did terrible things to animals all those years ago, nobody is disputing that. If they are, they need to be escorted to the nearest padded room as soon as possible. I was told during my training that the Huntington's incident was dealt with severely by the relevant authorities, the perpetrators were punished and disgraced, and the whole infrastructure of the institution was changed to ensure this never happened there again.
Whether you trust this assertion or not is another matter, I can certainly see how you could argue that the source of the claim wouldn't be impartial, given the context of it being in an animal experiment training session. HLS is also a largely commercial body, so exactly how much control the Home Office would have regarding their infrastructure is questionable. But even bearing that in mind, the argument that the awful crimes which were committed at Huntington's means all animal research is evil and must be stopped is blatantly ridiculous. Using that logic, we should imprison all GP's for life because of Harold Shipman's crimes. It's the only way to be sure, obviously...
As a scientist, I feel I have the insight to set a few things straight. We're constantly discouraged from doing this, purely because of the possible ramifications of protesters finding out and targeting us. For the safety of our colleagues and those we work with, we have to behave as if we are guilty of the things we're accused of, and skulk about in order to avoid detection. Those who don't risk being disciplined by their superiors.
Well I'm presently unemployed, so the only one I have to answer to is my conscience, and that has about as much say over what I do as a Lib Dem MP in the cabinet.
Firstly, I've worked in animal labs, and I've yet to meet anyone who, despite the accusations and implications, actually enjoys animal experimentation. Pretty much everyone who does it manages to develop a necessary sense of detachment, but it's never easy. As I always strive to point out, the vast majority of scientists are actually people, and we don't like psychopaths or sadists any more than the next person.
Even if you don't believe that, if you think that all animal researchers do it for the sick thrill of hurting furry creatures due to some trauma experienced while watching Return of the Jedi, or you believe that all scientists are dead-eyed emotionless robots who care for nothing but their precious data, look at the practicalities. A suffering animal is, scientifically, pretty much useless in most cases. Pain or discomfort have a complex physical, biological basis, so an animal in distress is going to provide unreliable results and throw off the data obtained in any experiment that studies anything other than pain. Granted, the study of pain is medically very important, so is ongoing and uses animal subjects. Whether you believe this is acceptable or not is up to you, but keep it in mind next time you take an analgesic for a slight headache. But by and large, the logic of scientific research means it's essential that animal subjects experience as little discomfort as possible.
People opposed to animal testing often shout about how we should use alternatives. What alternatives? Where there's an option, we use it. Why wouldn't we? Even if you still subscribe to the emotionless robotic data monger view of scientists, animal testing is a pain in the arse. If your research requires animal subjects, you spend the majority of your time maintaining and caring for the animals, making sure they're healthy and well, and the research often seems like an afterthought. Cleaning, feeding, weighing, record keeping, it all must be done to the highest standards as at any moment a Home Office inspector could turn up and, if the animals seem to be cared for imperfectly, will shut the entire place down. And they do this often. Lab animals have cushier lifestyles than most domestic pets, as government inspectors are unlikely to turn up and evict you from your house if you don't clean your hamsters cage regularly enough.
Believe me, if there was an effective substitute that offered the same complexity and sophistication offered by a living organism, we'd be using it. Perhaps some futuristic Quantum computer will eventually fulfil this function? I'm confident that all scientists would jump at the chance to use something like that, we bloody love new gadgets (I bet it'll have a bloody glowing apple logo on the side too, knowing my luck). Of course, something like that would be fantastically expensive at first, so we'd still be stuck using animals unless science research funding gets a massive increase. In that event, the protesters would start protesting those who are responsible for not funding science sufficiently, right? Right...? No, probably not.
Undeniably, Britain loves its animals, more so than most other countries. We have possibly the most strict and tightly regulated animal welfare laws in the world, even the NSPCC was founded long after the RSPCA (the first child cruelty case was actually brought by the RSPCA after a child was successfully classified as 'a small animal'). Let's not forget that very recently a cat placed in a bin received more sympathy than the masses of potentially innocent people killed in the floods in Pakistan. I wonder if I'm alone in thinking this was somewhat worrying? For as much as I love animals myself, I think people should come first. Hundreds of animal subjects being sacrificed to obtain information that could alleviate the suffering of thousands or millions of humans is, I think, a fair trade. A bit Darwinian of me perhaps, and there are certainly many people who I'd rank as less important than your typical cockroach, but overall I stand by it.
Apparently, this attitude makes me a torturer and murderer. I have been called both these things, totally seriously. Often by other comedians, who seemingly have no issues with using victims of rape and paedophilia to get cheap laughs, or with using the end product of the blood-drenched cocaine trade. No, I'm the bastard for doing research to enhance society's understanding of how things work.
It does surprise me how animal testing seems to skip all the logical or rational checks people normally use when judging something and go straight for the moral outrage. Even many skeptics have expressed a moral opposition to animal testing. People who claim to believe in evidence and rationality above all else, who condemn pseudoscience, alternative medicine and religious fundamentalism on the grounds they have no basis in evidence and can lead to innocent people coming to harm, they think the exact opposite when it comes to animal testing. We can't win.
It's amazing how seemingly rational people can be so morally outraged by it. A fellow PhD student, a Neuroscientist like myself (a field which wouldn't exist without animal testing), was fundamentally opposed to it, and took every opportunity to attack me over it. Then she found she had a rat in her flat and immediately called the council to deal with it. When I challenged her over this, about why me killing animals for science is wrong but her doing for her own piece of mind it is fine, she was shocked. She actually said "The council won't kill it will they? I thought they'd re-house it". I'd genuinely like to know if there are any families out there willing to adopt a filthy sewer rat as a pet, really I would.
Whenever I see the protesters, so many questions come to mind that I'd really like to have answered.
Why do all the posters and banners feature dogs, monkeys or the cute mammals? The vast majority, 90% plus, of experiments on mammals are performed on rodents, rats and mice. Admittedly, I think mice are little furry balls of evil, but where's the rats poster campaign? Or don't vermin 'suffer' in the same way as the more popular creatures? And that's just the mammals, why do you ignore all the others? The pigeons, the fish, the newts? What about poor Drosophilia? The fruit fly that's had its entire genome mangled many times in the name of science? It seems that unless it's furry and friendly, they don't give a shit these animal rights protesters. It's Animal rights only for the select few, apparently. How very right wing. Almost Catholic-like in their bias for creatures they deem 'worthy'.
On a similar matter, how come only scientists trying to make valuable discoveries are protested against? Why not protest Rentokil or other companies, which profit from the killing of innocent animals in the name of people's convenience? One argument is that vermin and infestations can carry diseases so exterminators are necessary. But medical research is not? So killing animals is OK if it benefits people's health, but not if it benefits people's health. I see. Except that I don't.
Why are battery farms and slaughterhouses generally let off the hook? Places where animals suffer in far greater numbers and in far less humane conditions that laboratories so that people can have greater choice in their cuisine?
Why not protest tanneries, where animals are killed so that people have nice things to wear or durable wallets? Why not protest the companies that cut down trees, undoubtedly traumatising or killing the many animals that live in them or depend on them in the process, in order to make paper for you to use to construct banners calling me and my sort a pack of bastards?
These things are apparently essential or at the very least acceptable, whereas medical research is not. I don't know who makes these decisions, but I'd like to see the method they use. I'm guessing a blindfold and a dartboard.
Using misinformation and intimidation to attack and persecute innocent people in order to defend a non-sentient organism in a manner which is in-keeping with their sense of moral superiority is usually the domain of pro-life and anti-abortion campaigners. Far be it from me to draw parallels between them and animal rights protesters, but they're there is you want to look.
Someone once asked me 'what gives us the right to decide how and when an animal dies?' I genuinely don't know, nor do I know if we can be said to have the right to anything we do as a species. But we've been doing it for millions of years, and still are on a massive scale, and for far less noble reasons than in the name of scientific discovery and the alleviating of the suffering of others.
No animals were harmed in the making of this report, although admittedly a few straw-men got a serious kicking.
Email: Humourology (at) live.co.uk