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Animal testing supporters go on offensive

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This weekend saw a shift in Britain's increasingly fraught battle between the research community and animal rights extremists.

Saturday's widely-reported Pro-Test march in support of Oxford's new animal lab marks the first time the first time the pro-testing lobby has taken off the mute button. It sought to show that people do see the benefits of animal testing and care that they continue to enjoy them.

The Pro-Test campaign is making media capital from the fact it was formed by 16-year-old Swindon blogger Laurie Pycroft. While unquestionably a grass-roots movement, equally significant is the fact that Pro-Test was backed, publicly, by leading neuroscientists Professors Tipu Aziz and John Stein. There has been a dearth of scientists willing to stick their heads above the parapet for fear of reprisals from organisations like the Animal Liberation Front.

Stein explained: "The [animal rights groups] have had it all their own way. They have intimidated people, but the time has come to speak up and risk it. Who knows what the risk is?"

Until now, the embattled facility at Oxford has been jeopardised by a series of victories for the animal rights lobby, including a delay of 16 months after contractors Walter Lilly & Co pulled out in the face of violent threats to shareholders. This weekend's 700-strong counter punch in favour of animal research regains for scientists a lot of ground lost in the PR battle.

SPEAK, the group formed to stop the building of what it describes as Oxford's "animal torture lab", has complained of media bias running up to the weekend's events. They claim the press has: "Pulled out all the stops in a bid to try and paint the SPEAK campaign as a small band of mindless extremists." While true that SPEAK is less overtly militant than other groups, protesters at its smaller counter-demonstration were shown on TV news refusing to condemn animal rights terrorism when challenged.

A press release on the group's website threatens: "Over the next few months all those associated with the build in South Parks [Oxford] will rue the day they ever thought they could profit out of the suffering of innocent animals." SPEAK blames vivisection for birth defects and stillbirths, and rightly notes that side-effects and other post-testing drug problems are sometimes not picked up by animal testing. However, at the same time they do not credit animal experiments with any major advances in medicine or saving lives.

SPEAK seeks to tie the controversy to ethical concerns over the policies and profiteering of the global pharmaceutical industry. More extreme groups push that adgenda twinned with the idea that scientists take pleasure in experimenting on live animals.

Wherever one stands on the moral debate, the irrefutable fact is that there is no simulation or in-vitro technique yet that begins to approach the complexity of human physiology.

The pro-testing lobby say they are not denying the right to protest against animal testing; there is an important debate to be had. They say they are speaking out against harrassing and attacking scientists in their homes, which simply stifles that debate, and reduces the transparancy of scientific endeavour.

The extreme tactics adopted by the worst of the animal rights groups in Britain are akin to those pro-life zealots Stateside. Authorities overseas worry that the UK will export this militant approach. Reuters reported a US security expert describing Britain as: "The Afghanistan of animal rights extremism."

UK scientists say their laboratories are subject to most stringent regulations in the world - every experiment must have three licences: one for the institution, one for the individual project, and one for the researchers themselves.

The plan for Pro-Test now is a bigger London demonstration, which it hopes will draw 5,000 supporters.

Animal Liberation Front spokesman Robin Webb described the event as "irrelevant". He told the Guardian: "The ALF supporters will completely ignore this protest group."®

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