Science - April 2, 2009

SHOULD WE KEEP QUIET ABOUT ILLEGAL ANIMAL ACTIVISM?

Activists from the Animal Liberation Front defaced Wageningen UR buildings and threatened staff members. For security reasons, the organization has been cautious about publicizing this. After all, attention could lead to further action of this sort. But there’s a flip side to keeping quiet too. If all the institutes which work with lab animals keep mum, we cannot get a full picture of the seriousness of animal activism.

Some Wageningen UR staff prefer not to give their names with their opinions, for fear of being targeted. An anonymous researcher: ‘I really find this very difficult. It is nearly always best to be open. But these animal activists are quite dangerous. That is because of the undemocratic nature of this group, which lacks internal opposition to give it balance. It’s a group that attracts people who are psychologically somewhat off-balance, and I am a bit scared of it. Now that they have turned their attention to Wageningen, I am in favour of not giving this a lot of publicity.

I do think that Wageningen UR should become more aware of this theme. They could even make a name for themselves in this area, as the relationship between humans and animals is changing. Over the last ten years, animal welfare has become a significant cultural movement, which is often underestimated in the sector itself. This is not the right moment, but in the coming years Wageningen should discuss the role of production and laboratory animals with stakeholders such as the meat industry and the animal protection groups.’

‘Media sometimes play into activists’ hands’
Marja Zuidgeest, director of Proefdiervrij, the Dutch Association for replacement of Animal Testing: ‘That is a very difficult question. Proefdiervrij is not happy with this sort of action. We also want to see animal testing done away with, but in a democratic way. Thanks to our democratic approach, the number of animal tests in the Netherlands is still going down. Our motivation for standing up for laboratory animals is based on a respect for life. Human beings are a species of animal too, so you should treat them with consideration. The illegal methods used by some groups do not appeal to us at all.

If society was paying no attention to the issue of animal testing, I could imagine that people could get so frustrated that they would resort to some strange approaches. Although even then, it is inexcusable. But this is absolutely not the case. Animal testing is high on the agenda.
I don’t think that actions like these are good for public debate on the issue. You get just the opposite reaction. Companies and people who are open about animal testing become reticent. But the media play a role sometimes too. It is easier to get on TV by setting fire to something than with carefully planned legal actions.’

‘The wish of the victim is decisive’
Dr Martje Fentener van Vlissingen, director of the Erasmus Animal Experiment Centre (EDC): ‘In recent years we haven’t been bothered much, but in the past Erasmus MC has been targeted. I was even on a website for the election of ‘animal torturer of the month’. I took it to the civil court and won the case. The website was eventually taken offline. The way our organization supports its staff means a lot at such a time. As an organization we are explicitly willing to be accountable to society for our research. And we don’t want to let ourselves be manipulated by the activists. So we have a policy of openness, but the atmosphere of threat does hinder public debate about animal testing. So it remains a fiendish dilemma. It is striking that victims are very unwilling to report the actions. If threats are made to homes, with hate and vandalism, it has an enormous impact.

The discretion of the press is then important, so that people are not forced into the public eye. The victim’s wish is decisive, because media attention can lead to escalation.

On the other hand, actions like this have news value, and a social and political issue is at stake. If nobody talks about it, then we can't get a true picture of the scale and significance of this sort of action. It is only since the activism got tougher, with actions like setting fire to property, that animal activism really got onto the political agenda.

But the activists might also be out for media attention, and if you give it to them, you reward them. What is more, media attention for the targeted institutions and people can stir up a lot of reactions and lead to social exclusion. It’s a many-headed monster, and the activists are very well aware of that. That is why they carry on harassing people in their private lives.’

Re:act