Raising the bar: What makes an effective public response in the face of animal rights campaigns?

For some scientists and institutions engaged in animal research,  activist campaigns against them are a fact of life.  These campaigns vary in tactics, scope, and longevity. At one end of the scale are the limited scope campaigns, perhaps when a paper reprints, more or less verbatim, an activist press release manufactured from misrepresenting publicly-available records. At the other end are sustained campaigns aimed at driving a scientist out of research by using mail and phone harassment, home protests, car fire, or threats of targeting children.

Somewhere in between are other types of campaign that should be of concern to those interested in public views of animal research. One is the sustained high-profile, multimedia effort targeting a specific scientist or research area. Another is the lower profile, insidious, and sustained misrepresentation of animal research, including promotion of ideas such as:  diet is the cure for most diseases; there are non-animal alternatives that could successfully achieve the same scientific goals as animal-based research; most research animals are not covered by any regulation; to name just a few.

These campaigns, and their consequences, affect everyone—scientists, physicians, medical charities, patients, policy makers, the public— with an interest in the current and future conduct of ethical, humanely conducted animal research aimed at progress in scientific understanding and medical advances.

Why?  Because animal research depends on democratic support, with a majority who agree upon its need, its benefits, and the conditions under which it is conducted.  It also depends upon the willingness of scientists to choose to spend their lives pursuing questions that currently require animal research.  Finally, it depends upon public and private institutions’ willingness to provide the support and facilities for the work.

Animal rights activists understand this, and over many decades have developed and refined multifaceted approaches aimed at undermining each of these three cores that are necessary for continued research.  So-called “Hearts & Minds” campaigns undercut public understanding and appreciation of research.  They can also work against institutions and individuals by devaluing the true benefits of their work and increasing fear of unwanted, negative attention.

Meanwhile, harassment campaigns directed at specific individuals or institutions – while giving every appearance of affecting only a tiny fraction of scientists who are targeted – actually have disproportionate jmpact because they contribute to a general impression that there is a risk to researchers’ personal safety.

Beyond duress to individuals, these campaigns have a much broader and damning net effect:  They contribute to creating a climate in which scientists, institutions, medical charities, and others are less likely to speak publicly about the value of animal research.  In turn, they then contribute to decreased opportunities for serious,  fact-informed, and civil public dialogue about animal research.  They also lower the likelihood of the public receiving accurate information in the face of activists’ campaigns that rely on gross misrepresentation of the conduct, need, and benefit of animal research.

Viewed from this perspective, it seems clear that those institutions, organizations, and individuals, who maintain the belief that they are not personally affected by the issue because they have not been directly targeted by animal rights activism must be persuaded to reconsider.

What can be done to counter this ongoing public campaign against animal research?  We have written previously and extensively about many approaches, venues and organizations engaged in effective ongoing efforts to explain the role of animals in research (here, here, here and here).   We believe that the responsibility for public engagement and education about animal research is one that is shared by the entire community.

So what makes an effective public response in the face of animal rights campaigns?

evaluating response to public interest in animal research graphic for SR post 02.18.13To begin with, we acknowledge that there are very different domains of public engagement with animal research.  Although they may have overlap in the broad goal of increasing public understanding, fact-based consideration and dialogue about research, they also differ in audience, participants, time-line, and goals, among other things.  Two general domains include:

1)      Outreach and education. Designed to provide the public with accurate information about animal research, including education about its conduct, goals, relative harms and benefits.  Successful outreach and education programs include sustained efforts that may include full-time groups, communicators, and educators working in concert with scientists, clinicians, animal care staff, veterinarians and others, or may occur as service without formal support. The range of venues and creativity in outreach and education programs is broad.  It includes face-to-face activities – laboratory visits to scientific talks, science festivals, community events, school workshops, for example.  It also includes articles, newsletters, web posting and other educational written, oral, and visual material disseminated publicly.

2)      Response to specific campaigns and events.  Ideally, also designed to provide the public with accurate information about animal research. Designed to counter inaccurate information, provide balance and context where needed, and defend those who are attacked.

Both of these domains are essential to build public understanding of animal research and to promote opportunities for continued progress in serious consideration and fact-informed public dialogue of some of the challenging issues involved in this area.  It is also the case that there are few norms for what good programs in either domain might look like.  As a result, what we see currently is widespread unevenness across institutions and organizations in terms of how they handle these activities.  Even the degree to which individuals, institutions, and organizations engage in any response varies markedly.

What would an optimal, successful response to an animal rights campaign look like? There is obviously no one answer, but if we arranged common response types we’ve seen over the last few years, we can identify some that are clearly less than effective.

The worst response is no response. Over and over again institutions discover that it simply makes it appear as if they have something to hide. Then, activists and the media emphasize the “suspicious” silence.

One up from no comment is the completely generic comment.

“The University of X conducts well-regulated animal research according to the principles of the 3Rs. Our research aims to better understand diseases such as diabetes and AIDS”

While better than no comment, it does nothing to address the media or activist concerns. Any institution which does only this has its reputation tarnished, and convinces activists that the institution will not challenge their accusations.

The middle of the road response is immediate and specific to the claims made. It will address and allay fears that an institution is ignoring its responsibilities to animals, explain the role of animals in research, and talk about specific research going on in the institution. This statement should include a comment from a very senior administrator, to show the institution is serious, and should include a link to the institution’s animal research policy. This statement should not only be provided to inquiring journalists, but also sent to any media outlet which has run the story. If those media outlets did not contact your institution first, then take this up with the editor – it is not acceptable to repeat claims without checking them first.

Institutions can improve these responses further, by inviting journalists or local politicians to view the facility. The best tours are led by someone with a clear understanding of both the science and the animal welfare implications around the lab (e.g., a scientist, a head veterinarian). This also serves to make personal connections with journalists and to immunize them against further animal rights campaigns.

Institutions should also be aware that publicly-available documents, ranging from USDA reports to veterinary clinical records, are often used by activists to generate news releases that may not be examined critically by reporters or others reading them.  As a result, the information in these documents can be presented in a way that lacks appropriate context or interpretation.  As we have written previously, this is one area which institutions and professional organizations could address more effectively by increasing their efforts to provide accessible explanations.  For example, when materials are released to open records request, an institution can provide a cover page that offers explanation of terms, places numbers in context, or otherwise demystifies documents in order to allow a more informed, balanced, and open view to a reasonable reader.

However, the very best response is to get in there first. Don’t wait for animal rights campaigns to start your outreach – proactively offer tours to the local community, provide speakers for local schools- engage with those who may defend or turn against you.  Also recognize that just as the science and discoveries occurring within your institution are of interest beyond the local community, so is news about your animal research programs.  Reaching those audiences with accurate information about the animals’ humane care and value to a wide range of research should be an explicit and supported goal in communicating science news.

Speaking of Research

48 responses to “Raising the bar: What makes an effective public response in the face of animal rights campaigns?

  1. The value of animal research should not be underestimated. There are plenty of examples that illustrate the use of animals and how this leads to medical progress both animals and humans benefit from. Nor should the public ignore that some animal extremist organizations are not there for the sake of dialogue, to improve animal research or SAVE human lives. Their aims are to create a world where nobody wants or beliefs we need to experiment on animals (BUAV) or that animals are not ours to wear, eat, experiment on, use for entertainment or to abuse in any way. In other words take your disease, illness, malfunction elsewhere.

  2. “Pro-active” also means that you stop answering to the animal extremist groups. Any time they think that you are answering to them they will abuse you. Cut them out of the game entirely. Built your own platform. They don’t get to participate because they are violent and dishonest.

  3. Aren’t humans animals? Are humans more worthy than other animals? Why do humans deserve better treatment than other animals?

    • Let’s not forget that animal research also helps other animals besides humans. Veterinary medicine has made incredible advances thanks to animal model based research. There are now treatments for cancer for our pets, there are vaccines against the more common diseases and medications for those odd ones that pop up. Large dog breeds often suffer from arthritis and there are now treatments for that.

      It’s a common misconception that animal research only benefits humans. It does not. Many of the same treatments for humans are applicable to other animals and vice-verse. There is also a lot of research into agriculture animals. Researching the best mixes of grain to yield the most amount of milk. Looking into what probiotics keep a cow the healthiest.

      Additionally, there is a lot of science termed “Basic Research” which means learning what individual protiens, molecules, genes, etc.. do in the body. Despite our gains in knowledge in these areas, there is much still unknown. What if we could treat cancer by targeting just the cancerous cells without the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation? So there’s a lot that involves animal model based research and it isn’t all about the pharmaceutical companies.

  4. Juan Carlos Marvizon

    @FACT139: Your question could be recast as: “Are some animals more worthy than other animals?” If the answer is no, then it would be unethical to kill the ticks that are infecting your dog, because the worth of the ticks and of the dog would be the same, wouldn’t it? Yet, to most people, it would be absurd and cruel not to treat a tick-infested dog. I think that the answer is that not all animals have the same level of sentience (or consciousness), and therefore they don’t have the same capacity to suffer. Dogs are more sentient than ticks, and ticks are more sentient than jellyfish. By the same token, humans have a richer psychic life than other animals, and more capacity to suffer. That is why humans deserve better treatment that other animals.

  5. Even given equal consideration, we would have the absolute right to kill, to eat, and fornicate as we wished because that is what other animals have the right to do. They claim moral supremacy over animal users and we have failed to disabuse them of this. They use this claim to justify working to violate all of our rights and to make our rights illegal.

    Unfettered, humans tend to use our powers over animals for the good of the animals because every time we do that we gain. When they started the current campaign, now about fifteen years old, they started a process of relabeling every benefit for the animals as some form of abuse, a “better dead than fed” philosophy really.

    I’ve been working to get people to understand that if they want their pet dogs, gerbils, monkeys, foxes, lions, or whatever, they had better be on the side of medical researchers, hunters including “canned” hunters, fur farmers, and all animal users. “Private owners” were the first to be bamboozled into accepting the harms that were done to laboratories such as Edward Taub’s and now the same “Animal Welfare Act” is being used against its most ardent supporters. Now the exotic animal industry produces poorly, having allowed itself to be restricted and “regulated” by people who have vowed to destroy it by any means fair or foul.

    I have more sympathy for laboratory researchers than I do for people who say we need regulations or licensing for privately owned pets.

    • I disagree that we must take an all or none approach to animal use.

      I am happy to reject fox hunting and cosmetic testing, while being fine with medical research.

      • All that happens with that attitude is that they take us apart piece by piece. I am very much for cosmetics testing and fox hunting because if I give them the power to take those away, they have already come and taken away dog breeding and pet ownership.

      • In other words, if you let them ban fox hunting and cosmetics testing, you might as well not bother to support medical research. You already gave away the store. Also, what are your views on dog breeding and exotic pets?

      • I am a strong believer in animal welfare (not animal rights). I do not think the welfare costs to animals for either cosmetic testing or fox hunting justify the suffering, and don’t advocate letting animals suffer just to ring fence the issues that do really matter.
        The level of justification for animal research is orders of magnitude above any justification for fox hunting.

      • I can accept dog breeding as long as welfare standards remain high (no puppy mills). Though I have had shelter dogs throughout my up bringing.
        Exotic pets should only be kept by those that have the knowledge and means to provide for their welfare – which is certainly a lot less people than own them.

      • I support fox hunting, cosmetics testing, the unfettered ownership of exotics, and the use of that derogatory term for “dog breeder” is simply wrong.

      • What you don’t seem to understand is that by letting them have the power to decide who is an irresponsible breeder, or who should own exotic animals, or who can hunt what animals, you’ve put your power behind a huge part of their agenda. You’ve also given hunters, dog breeders, and exotic animal owners much less reason to support you and they will end up giving the extremists the power to take you out. Everyone must support everyone.

      • They don’t have that power – that lies in the hands of the regulator (the Government). I don’t feel it’s up to the individual to decide what animal cruelty is – certainly we don’t do that in labs, there are very strict guidelines that must be followed.

        Obviously neither of us support animal rights, but do you support animal welfare?

      • They do have that power, Tom. They do. They lie to law enforcement and they have damaged many lives.

        I believe in animal welfare, but it’s not going to happen by deceptive law enforcement practices and it’s not going to happen by banning cosmetics testing or fox hunts.

  6. Animal researchers are this generation’s slave owners. They simply torture animals and put up pretty fronts describing it as necessary for this and that and then demand money for more of it! And they get so offended when you call them on their BS. They must have been the weird kids in elementary school who tortured cats and dogs, but now we pay them to do it, and they fall to pieces if you call them out. Karma is exact, accurate and inevitable.

  7. Can you speak on the recent research showing how mice have mislead researchers for decades on trauma, burns and sepsis? And please don’t respond with examples of how animal research has helped. That’s not the question. Thank you!

  8. You know what is sad and pathetic? You never, ever, once, mention the suffering of the animals that you experiment upon. You talk a lot about all the breakthroughs and scientific achievements, but not about the tremendous sacrifices those animals are making -unwillingly of course. History will treat all animal researchers as war criminals one day and will be revolted by the way they have acted. Are you proud enough to tell your children and your family about what you do to animals? And btw, I said the weird kids who tortured animals, not, “weird kids who sat in the corner talking to themselves,” and for that matter, at least they had moral courage to stand up to you heathens. If you are so proud of what you do, why doesn’t every researcher let everyone know the experiments they have undertaken with animals? Let their mothers, fathers and especially children and grandchildren know that mommy and daddy tortured a beagle, or paralyzed a monkey. I cannot say anything but that animal research is revolting. Catholic school was good enough to teach me that the end does not justify the means, and any good effect from an evil activity, is never good or moral. So yes, the achievements have been lovely for some people, but that does not make what happens to animals right. I cannot face my God knowing that I tortured animals.

    • Well, I did tell my child what I do and anyone else that wants to know. I’m not ashamed of the work I do because, namely, I know you’re full of crap in your accusations. I think you’d find that we routinely acknowledge the sacrifice that the animals are making. If you’re too lazy to look for that information, that’s not my fault. It’s easily obtainable. It’s clear by your comments that you have little or no actual knowledge about animal research, have never been to an animal research facility, and rely on what others tell you for your information.

      As always, you are free to refuse any and all benefits of animal research at any time. Of course that means no emergency room treatments, over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, treatments for cancers, diabetes, infectious disease (flu shots?), MRI’s, CT scants, medical treatment for your pets, treatments for heart disease, kidney disease…the list goes on and on. However, if you truly think animal research is repulsive and BS, then you must forgo any and all of these benefits. Otherwise you’re just a hypocrite, and nobody likes those.

  9. What part of my “accusations” is “crap?” There are abundant resources describing the horrors of animal research – most of them written by the scientists and universities conducting them. The cat experiments at Madison? The experiments with monkeys at UCLA? The Huntingdon Life Science experiments? The pit of despair experiments? The monkeys with metal rods in their brains? The animals with steel coil in their eyes? The eyes sewn shut? What part of that is “crap?” Do you acknowledge the sacrifice of those animals or do you just say that so you feel better about yourself when collecting federal research grants, while sewing eyes shut and putting steel rods on the brain, and dumping monkeys into the pit of despair ? If you were one of those animals, what would you think of what you are doing? Glad I will not have karma like yours. Typical dirty scientist, accusing other people of being lazy…while you tear apart living beings.

    • Do you walk into a hospital, grab the nearest surgeon and shout at him for cruelty? No! Much of the “controversial” research you attack(e.g. involving the cats at Madison) are the same as that which is done to humans undergoing surgery in a hospital.
      Have you considered the steps taken to alleviate suffering in the above experiments?

    • So….is that a yes you will forgo the benefits from animal research or no you won’t? You forgot to answer that. I’m sure it was just a oversight on your part seeing as you were too busy ranting. My salary is not contingent upon federal research grants nor to I rip apart living beings so you really ought to check your facts before making a bigger fool of yourself. I know, too late right?

      I’m willing to bet you will not forgo the benefits of animal research because, like most animal rights activists, you’re a whole lot of hot air. You rant and complain, yet when it comes to your own life you can suddenly justify why you should be able to take advantage of it while denying it to anyone else. With that said, it’s time for you to crawl back in to your mothers basement, finish grade school and then you can join the adult world.

  10. What steps to alleviate suffering could possibly “alleviate” suffering in reference to the pit of despair experiments, or the metal on the brain? And Dave B…thank you for your response. It is gratifying to see that when they drop the thin veneer of respectability vivisectors and their supporters are as guilty of ad hominem attacks as the people they oppose.And thanks for that lovely canard that vivisectors like to use…”you won’t forgo benefits of animal research” therefore you are complicit and a hypocrite. Just like when you trot out disease victims to make everyone who opposes animal torture feel guilty somehow. Fortunately, we don’t play by your rules. It’s an unfortunate fact that no one can undo the suffering already caused by vivisectors and the pharmaceutical industry or bring comfort to the millions of animals and their parents and offspring who have suffered a loss, but that does not mean that we abandon all the things we have as a result, it means that going forward we stop vivisection and look for other methods. Of course vivisectors have such a vested interest and are so stuck in their ways, they are stuck arguing in favor of it, even in the face of alternatives – whenever they are made available. I am quite comfortable saying that we are fine with the medical advances we have at the moment – we can do without some for a while. We lived thousands of years without needing to sew animals eyes shut, or toss monkeys into the pit of despair, and I think we can survive perfectly well without it in the future, thank you very much. We haven’t cured Alzheimers, HIV, or cancer despite all the money thrown at it or all the “research” done, so it’s not like we would be any worse off.

    • Remember that Harlow’s “pit of despair” experiments were done 40 years ago. Much of his later work would never be given approval these days.

      When you talk of monkeys with metal rods in their brain, you are probably referring to electrodes. This leaves two important facts:
      1) The brain cannot feel pain – it may look shocking but it is much less so for the animal
      2) We do the same thing to humans to treat them for conditions including Parkinson’s (Deep Brain Stimulation). The only difference is during an animal study they do not worry about making everything aesthetically nice afterwards.

      We haven’t cured cancer or AIDS, but we have made huge strides. Thanks to anti-retrovirals (animal research) a person with AIDS can live a full life – thanks to animal research it is no longer a death sentence. Cancer survival rates continue to climb thanks to better detection and better treatments (e.g. Herceptin – a mouse antibody used to treating breast cancer). You say that we can do without these advances, well many people can’t – what right do you have to doom them to die.

      (Also, which “sew animals eyes shut” research are you referring to? If the recent Cardiff Experiments then the whole story is that 7 kittens had one eye sewn up for up to 7 days because it was seen as less distressing for the animal than using an eye patch. The research is already showing success with new treatments for amblyopia being tested in humans)

    • Ah there we go. The justifying why you won’t forgo the treatments but will deny any future benefits to others. That’s fine. Who do you think is funding the research into using alternatives to animal models? PeTA? HSUS? No, it’s typically the very scientists you rally against that do the research, funded by the federal government. PeTA and HSUS are too busy raking in donations to actually make a positive impact.

      You also don’t seem to clearly understand that using animal models is expensive and if there was a really viable alternative they’d use it. For instance, if computer modeling were the answer, what would be cheaper, the $4000 top end computer or the $150,000 a year spent housing and caring for the animals? So please name the viable alternatives that are available for research.

      I can say from personal experience that animal research has helped me and I’m eternally grateful. I was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer. It was discovered using an ultrasound, a modality developed using animal models. My thyroid was surgically removed, another procedure developed using animal models, Finally, I now have to take Levothryroxine which is a synthetic form of thyroxine developed using animal models. The original thyroxine replacement hormone was developed from purified swine thyroid glands. So maybe we haven’t cured cancer, but the survival rate is astronomically higher that it was even 20 years ago. Maybe you don’t care about that, but my family sure does.

    • Just out of curiosity, although I may regret asking, why shouldn’t we mention disease victims that have been saved because of research using animal models? What are your rules? “We don’t care how many people you save…unless it’s us.” And who are you to say we can do without medical advances? That’s an incredibly arrogant statement. Apparently all those suffering from various diseases aren’t worthy of saving in your estimation? Talk about bad Karma!

  11. I am afraid this is getting too intense and you aren’t really interested in hearing what any members of the public has to say.

  12. You got all that because we actually took the time to reply to you?

  13. There really isn’t any point. You guys can never wrap your mind around how some people think of animals. It’s scary.

    • I can – I just don’t see the benefit of meaninglessly anthropomorphising when it prevents the development of new medical and veterinary treatment to help humans and animals.

      I simply disagree with your base assumptions about animals, that doesn’t mean I don’t understand where you’re coming from.

  14. I have lived on a farm most of my life, I have always had cats, dogs, fish and hermit crabs even. I took care of chickens who were rejected from laying farms. I have fostered animals that need new homes. Forgive me if I cannot simply look at them as laboratory equipment.

    • With all those animals did you ever need a veterinarian? Did you get any of them vaccinated? How do you suppose they developed those vaccines and medications for animals? It’s a complete fallacy that those of us in research somehow hate animals and enjoy inflicting pain. Most people I know have pets (including me) and most are very concerned about the welfare of the animals we work with.

  15. I have a difficult time believing that those involved especially in neuroscience research do not enjoy inflicting pain and suffering. It simply cannot be otherwise and I can see this because if they didn’t, you wouldn’t have to have websites and groups devoted not to saying simply “yes unfortunately we need more animal research” but “animal research is great, we must keep it up!” Like you are celebrating the fact and Tom wouldn’t be promoting the abuse of Beagles in the UK. So many people, including myself, are campaigning to have those poor dogs released to loving homes…but nope, Tom is PROMOTING their continued torture and butchery at the hands of AstraZeneca, do you have any idea how cruel and heartless that appears? It’s like you deliberately side against the animals. That is why I find it hard to believe you give 2 cents about the welfare of animals, otherwise, you’d say, they paid their service, now let them enjoy life. But no, Tom will have none of it. Back to the torturers they will go. That is simply out of spite.

    • You’re very misinformed. Animals can not be used for more than one experiment unless the researcher can prove they need to do otherwise. To my knowledge this is rarely done. In fact, many facilities do adopt out some of their animals after they are done with experiments. A friend of mine has a beagle he adopted from his facility. I adopted a greyhound that was used at a local college where I previously worked.

      And I don’t think you’ll find us saying it’s great, keep it up. What we are trying to convey to people is that, at this time, it is necessary for devellping treatments for people and animals.

      Don’t think I didn’t notice you ignored my questions about veterinarians. You are aware that at every facility that uses research animals there is a veterinarian on staff to provide care? Not to mention usually several Veterinary Technicians?

      I also notice you haven’t replied to my question asking you to name the viable alternatives.

  16. Shows the kind of soulles, satanic people you must be. Hope you’re proud!

  17. I just found this video for the first time and the first few seconds that involved screaming Beagles is something that I can’t get out of my head now. It’s the first live footage I’ve ever seen, so don’t tell me that I’ve never seen “inside a lab.” it’s absolutely terrifying. How can you sit there and make me feel stupid for standing up for animals, Iike I’m some dumb bumpkin.

    • It’s from an undercover investigation 15 years ago. The two technicians were arrested and charged with offences of animal cruelty. That was not animal research, that was exceptional and terrible misconduct by two people who should never have been involved in the field.
      Accusing all of animal research on that footage is like characterising all animal rights supporters as the same as the people who attacked an HLS director with baseball bats.

      • Accusing all fox hunters and cosmetics testers is the same thing.

      • Accusing all fox hunters on the basis of one fox hunt, or cosmetic testing on the basis of one poor quality lab would be the same. However, if you disagree with the principles of either cosmetic testing or fox hunting (as opposed to a one-off indiscretion) then it’s not the same argument.

      • Your “disagreement” with fox hunting and cosmetics testing stokes the extremists and nullifies all help that you might have been for medical researchers.

        • If we agree with animal cruelty we empower the extremists. In the UK, the banning of cosmetic testing, and the banning of fox hunting both preceded periods where support for animal research rose (though I’m not sure there is a direct connection).

      • What you support banning has, and I am repeating myself, made your efforts worse than useless, so I am going to stop talking with you.

    • I once saw a picture of animal rights activists wearing ski masks and wielding axes. Therefore I know all about the animal rights movement, how they think, and have concluded based on that one picture that all those concerned with animal rights and animal welfare are violent thugs. Any and all force should be used to stop them.

      My comment makes about as much sense as yours.

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