Fighting back against animal rights extremists

Here we go again.

One of the greatest threats to biomedical research, in the U.S. at least, is the truly crappy research funding environment, a situation that hasn’t been this bad for at least 20 years. Labs are closing; investigators are giving up; and fewer of our young best and brightest are interested in a career in biomedical research. However, there are other threats. Although they’re not as big a threat in the US as they are in Europe, animal rights activists have nonetheless managed to intimidate scientists here, harass idealistic young students interested in a career in science in a truly vile manner, and in general do everything they can to make animal research as onerous and difficult as possible. Their tactics range from simple protest to targeting scientists’ children and fetishizing violence, justifying it against those whom they perceive as their enemies, namely scientists. All the while, they use highly dubious scientific and moral arguments to justify their stance, such as claiming that simulations can replace animal research or that animals are such poor predictors of human responses as to be utterly useless (a favorite argument of Ray Greek). Despite the occasional schadenfreude over the occasional animal rights activist receiving his comeuppance, animal rights extremists have tried very hard to shut down animal research by any means they deem necessary.

Last week, they were at it again in Italy:

Activists occupied an animal facility at the University of Milan, Italy, at the weekend, releasing mice and rabbits and mixing up cage labels to confuse experimental protocols. Researchers at the university say that it will take years to recover their work.

Many of the animals at the facility are genetic models for psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

No arrests have been made following the 12-hour drama, which took place on Saturday, although the university says that it will press charges against the protesters. The activists took some of the animals and were told during negotiations that they would be permitted to come back later and take more.

The group, Fermare Green Hill (or Stop Green Hill), in reference to the Green Hill dog-breeding, even posted video, along with a nauseatingly self-righteous justification for their illegal assault on a research university. I don’t understand Italian, but what’s going on in the video is quite clear:

I have no idea why the University would ever promise to allow the protestors to take more of the animals. That would be signing their death warrants. These were laboratory animals, after all. They are in general incapable of surviving in the wild. Many of them require special diets and special facilities. Even if the animal rights thugs tried to take care of them, likely they wouldn’t have the facilities or the know-how to prevent scores of animals from dying. For instance, at around 2:46 in the video there are pictured what obviously are athymic nude mice, an immunosuppressed strain of mice that requires an clean, pathogen-free environment to survive. The video shows a couple of the mice jumping around rather frantically, as though they were being tortured. Anyone who’s ever taken care of nude mice know that they do that not infrequently. There’s nothing abnormal. The behavior means nothing.

So what did the animal rights thugs accomplish? Well, they managed to screw up a whole lot of research and destroy the projects of a number of graduate students:

In addition to mixing up animals and cage labels to ensure that ongoing experiments would be ruined, the activists also took the names of the experimenters from the cage labels, some of which they later published on their Facebook page.

The university is now calculating the damages and deciding what charges it will press, according to Guidobono-Cavalchini.

Michela Matteoli, a neurobiologist who works on autism and other disorders and lost most of her own research in the attack, says that she found some research students crying in the disrupted facility on Monday morning.

“It will take three people at least a year to build up the colonies we had of mouse models of different psychiatric diseases,” she says.

So basically, several graduate students who were working on projects related to autism and other disorders had years’ worth of work destroyed beyond repair. Indeed, it was clear that it was the intent of the thugs to do just that. Why else would they mix up the cage cards so thoroughly, if not to render the animal experiments completely uninterpretable. Then there’s the loss to science. Time has been wasted for no reason. Resources have been squandered by ideological blindness. Potential discoveries in autism, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, amyotropic lateral sclerosis, nicotine addiction, and Prader-Willi syndrome will be delayed or never happen. And students’ careers have been put on hold for however long it takes them to rebuild their animal colonies. Who knows? It’s possible that one or more of them will give up and do something else? Why put themselves at risk?

Which is, of course, exactly what Fermare Green Hill wants.

It also never ceases to amaze me how cowardly animal rights activists are. After all, in the grand scheme of things, the animals used for biomedical research are a tiny fraction of the animals who are used and sometimes killed by humans, far outnumbered by the animals killed in slaughterhouses for our food. Yet animal rights activists obsessively focus on animal research and “vivisection,” even though vivisection is not practiced anymore. Why? Perhaps it’s because they think they can persuade people that they don’t need animal research and because scientists are what they view as a “soft underbelly” (much as animal rights activists view young students and scientists’ children as the “soft underbelly” of biomedical research). On the other hand, convincing people that they don’t need meat is much, much harder. Similarly, because most people don’t understand science, it is easy to make animal research seem like something sinister. It doesn’t matter that animal research is among the most heavily regulated research, with rules governing the welfair and comfort of research animals that have to be complied with.

The only way to stop attacks on scientists is for scientists to stop hunkering down and hoping not to be noticed by animal rights activists. We’ve been touched by animal rights activists at my very own institution, where a prominent researcher who chairs a committee on which I serve has been targeted by Negotiation Is Over. Yes, it’s struck close to home. I’ve spoken to various people who are responsible for maintaining the various vivariums around the campus, and they are definitely worried. Security is being increased, which increases costs and makes doing animal research ever more onerous.

Fortunately, there has been one proverbial silver lining in this sea of clouds in Italy. Actually, two. First, the largest animal rights associations in Italy have shown their hypocrisy by failing to mention anything about this. Too afraid to condemn it or offering tacit approval? My guess is the latter, but either way, their silence is deafening. More importantly, Italian scientists, shocked by this attack on them, have mobilized. On Sunday, about 60 of them held a peaceful rally in Milan under the auspices of Pro-Test Italia (Facebook), a group formed to support biomedical research in December. Even better, Pro-Test Italia plan on holding another rally on May 25.

Finally, top European scientists have issued the Basel Declaration, which you can sign if you want to show your support. The declaration calls for solidarity with the scientists whose research has been ruined by the fanatical ideology of animal rights activists. It also calls on scientists to follow the principles of humane animal research and to communicate the value of animal research, while also calling on government and law enforcement agencies to do more to protect research facilities. For example:

We, the undersigned:

  1. Stress that biomedical research cannot be separated into ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research; it is rather a continuum stretching from studies of fundamental physiological processes to an understanding of the principles of disease and the development of therapies.
  2. Encourage free and transparent communication to avoid unnecessary duplication of research.
  3. Insist that necessary research involving animals, including non‐human primates, be allowed now and in the future.
  4. Ask that new laws and regulations only be introduced when they are the result of an objective, democratic discourse that is based on facts.
  5. Request that society and lawmakers condemn the acts of radical groups that resort to unlawful means or violence against the research community under the pretense of animal protection.

I signed the scientists section, but you don’t have to be a scientist to sign. I hope that you will too.