Tag Archives: animal rights extremism

Students in Rome to rally for Prof Caminiti and future of science in Italy

Tomorrow students at the Sapienza University of Rome – Italy’s largest University – will join their Professors and members of the campaign group Pro-Test Italia outside the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology to show solidarity with Professor Roberto Caminiti, a leading neurophysiologist whose work is being attacked by animal rights extremists.

Tomorrow Pro-Test Italia will return to the streets of Rome, joining students and scientists in support of crucial research.

Tomorrow Pro-Test Italia will return to the streets of Rome, joining students and scientists in support of crucial research.

As with many recent instances of anti-scientific populism in Italy, the campaign against Prof. Caminiti began in earnest with a dishonest broadcast on the Italian tabloid TV news programme Striscia la Notizia which misrepresented the work being done by Pr0f. Caminiti and his colleagues. Prof. Caminiti responded to these false allegations in a video which you can watch here (in Italian with English subtitles)

Following the broadcast the European Animal rights Party (PAE) announced that they would be holding a demonstration Sapienza University of Rome, on February 5 2015, with the declared will to “free” the monkeys that are used by Pr0f. Caminiti and his colleagues. This has sparked concerns that the PAE – and the more extreme animal rights groups who will no doubt accompany them – will attempt to repeat the events of 20th April 2013, when five animal rights activists forced entry into the Pharmacology Department of the University of Milan, stealing hundreds of mice and destroying years of research.

There is, however, a major difference between 2013 and today; today scientists and students are ready to stand up and  defend their research. A group of neurobiology students at the Sapienza University of Rome have organized a counter-demonstration (see this Facebook event for details) tomorrow morning – February 5 – to show support for Prof Caminiti, defend their department, and speak up for the future of scientific research in Italy.

On Monday their stand received a boost when Professor Vincenzo Vullo, Head of the Faculty of Pharmacy and Medicine at Sapienza University of Rome, circulated an email to all scientists, staff and students to express support for Prof. Caminiti, and called on them to join him in defense of the research being undertaken at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology:

Dear colleagues, dear students,

I transmit an open letter by Prof. Roberto Caminiti in defense of the unacceptable smear campaign underway against the scientific activity of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology of our University.

In this regard, I wish to emphasize the scientific value of Prof. Caminiti, an internationally acclaimed researcher whose research has made a significant contribution to the knowledge of the central nervous mechanisms of motor control. I also want to remember especially his human qualities, demonstrated in the constant respect and care with which he always treated animals necessary for his studies.

In expressing my personal solidarity with Prof. Caminiti, I ask for the support of all members of the faculty in defense of the scientific research conducted at the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology of our university.

Vincenzo Vullo”

The email also included a letter addressed to all staff and students from Prof. Caminiti:

Dear Colleagues, dear Students,
On December 18 2014 the TV show “Striscia la Notizia”, using images illegally shot in our animal facilities, broadcast a report with the aim of stirring in the public opinion a campaign condemning the scientific activity of the Neurophysiology of Behaviour Laboratory, in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology of our Atenaeum, where other professors and I carry out our scientific activity, which started in the year1985.
To reply to the accusation of animal cruelty, as an act of absolute transparency of research towards the public, I posted online a reasoned reply, in which it is showed and commented on everything that is performed in our laboratories, thanks to several projects financed by MIUR (Italian Government research funder- Speaking of Research) and the EU, and according to experimental protocols regularly authorized by the Ministry of Health.
On January 23 2015, once again “Striscia la Notizia” returned to the topic, using the images we put online, to claim, with the help of a “flora and fauna” specialist (!) that our studies were useless and cruel, where it is unanimously recognized in the scientific community that our research, together with other work carried out in a select group of international laboratories, lead to the development of brain-computer interface in humans and to the cerebral control of artificial prostetics in patients with paralysis due to neurodegenerative or neurovascular diseases, just like similar researches lead to the development of deep brain stimulation in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.
Exploiting the footage broadcasted by “Striscia la Notizia”, the European Animal rights Party (PAE) launched a national demonstration, set to take place on February 5 2015, in front of our Department, with the declared will to “free” the animals that we are working with, and together with the Antivivisection League (LAV) stated that they have submitted a complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office in Rome, to open an investigation aimed to the confiscation of the animals, and to open a criminal case against me for animal cruelty.
I call on you, confident that you believe in a country guided by reason, commitment and study, and not driven by obscurantism, just like the “Stamina” case, that you all well know (for more on the Stamina scandal see this recent report -Speaking of Research) . And I ask yo to defend, with the appropriate instruments, the scientific activity and the dignity of a Department of our Atenaeum.
On the morning of February 5, wearing a white lab coat and flower in the buttonhole, I will be in front of my Department to defend and reaffirm that ideal that drove us all to become MDs and researchers.
With best regards,
Roberto Caminiti

We congratulate both faculty and students at Sapienza University of Rome for taking this action in support of science, and wish them, Pro-Test Italia, and all friends of medical progress every success as they stand together in this noble cause.

Speaking of Research

ALF Claims Responsibility for CALAS National Office Vandalism

On Tuesday, July 15, an act of vandalism occurred near the Canadian Association for Laboratory Animal Science National Office in Toronto, ON.  There were no injuries and a police investigation is ongoing.

CALAS Canadian Association Laboratory Animal ScienceThe extremist website Bite Back published an unsigned communique:

“On July 14, 2014, in Toronto, the Animal Liberation Front injected butyric acid into the office of the Canadian Association for Laboratory Animal Science. CALAS is an organization made up of vivisectors that promotes animal research. The butyric acid will soak through the carpet and into the floorboards of their offices, and major repairs will be needed to get rid of the stench. Any building managers considering taking in CALAS as a tenant should be aware that unless you want something similar to happen in your offices, then think twice before doing business with these murderers. -ALF”

Any type of vandalism, violence or intimidation is counterproductive to informed and civil discussion.  We, at Speaking of Research condemn this type of activity while applauding CALAS for their dedication to the welfare of laboratory animals in the face of this cowardly and illegal act. The following excerpt is taken from the CALAS website:

CALAS/ACSAL is a national association dedicated to providing high quality training and educational resources to animal care professionals across Canada. We believe animal research, when necessary, must be conducted professionally, ethically and compassionately.Our training and certification programs are internationally respected and support national standards of excellence in animal research, teaching, and testing across Canada. Our members are committed to the humane and professional care of research animals. They have received advanced training in the highest standards of animal care. We support a diverse group of professionals including animal care attendants, animal health technicians, and veterinarians.

The irony that ALF failed to see is that this association, by promoting training for laboratory animal professionals and promoting the sharing of best practices actually lead to improved animal welfare of laboratory animals.

Speaking of Research

How to help girls with Rett syndrome, and strike a blow against extremism!

Today we have a guest post by Dr Nicoletta Landsberger, Associate Professor at the University of Insubria and Principle Investigator at the San Raffaele Rett Research Center. The San Raffaele Rett Research Center is supported by the Pro Rett Ricerce (proRett), a small but energetic Italian patient organization that funds research in Italy and abroad to find a cure for the neurodevelopmental disorder Rett syndrome, which affects about 1 in 10,000 girls. 

A fortnight ago Dr Landsberger was forced to cancel a fundraising event – which included a raffle – for proRett due to the threat of disruption from animal rights extremists. Our friends in Pro-Test Italia wrote an open letter to Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi about this attack on medical progress, and bought 200 tickets for the raffle (worth 400 Euros).

Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of the recent increase in animal rights extremism in Italy, but the campaign against a charity that seeks to find effective therapies for a disease that devastates many thousands young lives around the world marks a new low. We need to support our friends in Italy, to support the children who suffer from Rett syndrome, and to send a strong message to animal rights extremists that their intimidation and bullying will not be tolerated. We are not asking you to march in the streets, or to sign a petition, or even to write a letter, we are asking you to do something a lot simpler; we are asking you to make a donation to proRett.

Please take a few minutes to give proRett what you can via their PayPal account, even a small donation will help (The PayPal account is in Italian, but essentially identical to the English language version. United States is Stati Unita in Italian, and United Kingdom is Regno Unito. If you are unsure of anything just use Google Translate).

Imagine Anna, a wonderful eight months girl sitting in her high chair and turning the pages of a book while watching it. Imagine Anna’s mother showing you other pictures of her daughter, smiling to her siblings or grasping objects. Everything seems normal, but then, few months later, the pictures are different. Anna is not smiling anymore, the expression of her face is different, the brightness has disappeared and in many pictures Anna has protruding jaws. Anna’s mother tells me “this is when I realized that something was changing…. At that time Anna’s progress stopped, the ability to hold the book and turn its pages was lost, overcome by continuous stereotyped hand-wringing movements. Rett syndrome and its regression phase were taking Anna away, locking her in her body for good”.

Anna is now 16, she is wheel chair bound, unable to talk and to play; like most girls affected by Rett syndrome she suffers from seizures, hypotonia, constipation, scoliosis, osteopenia, and breathing irregularities. Like most girls affected (over 90%) by typical Rett syndrome she carries a mutation in the X-linked MECP2 gene.

Today, almost 30 years after Rett syndrome was internationally recognized as a unique disorder mainly affecting girls, we know that it is a rare genetic disease, and that because of its prevalence (roughly 1:10.000 born girls) can be considered one of the most frequent causes of intellectual disability in females worldwide.

Rett syndrome is a pediatric neurological disorder with a delayed onset of symptoms and has to be clinically diagnosed relying on specific criteria. Girls affected by typical Rett Syndrome are born apparently healthy after a normal pregnancy and uneventful delivery and appear to develop normally usually throughout the first 6-18 months of life. Then their neurological development appears to arrest and, as the syndrome progresses, a regression phase occurs that leads to a documented loss of early acquired developmental skills, such as purposeful hand use, learned single words/babble and motor skills. During the regression phase, patients develop gait abnormalities and almost continuous stereotypic hand wringing, washing, clapping, and mouthing movements that constitute the hallmark of the disease. Many other severe clinical features are associated with typical Rett syndrome, including breathing abnormalities, seizures, hypotonia and weak posture, scoliosis, weight loss, bruxism, underdeveloped feet, severe constipation and cardiac abnormalities. Rett syndrome patients often live into adulthood, even though a slight increase in the mortality rate is observed, which is often caused by sudden deaths, probably triggered by breathing dysfunctions and cardiac alterations. There are no effective therapies available to slow or stop the disease, only treatments to help manage symptoms.

Genetic analyses show that most cases are caused by a mutation in the X-linked MECP2 gene, and many different missense mutations and deletions have been identified within the MECP2 gene of girls with Rett syndrome that prevent the protein from functioning correctly. The formal genetic proof of the involvement of the MECP2 gene in Rett syndrome is further provided by a number of diverse mouse models carrying different MECP2 alterations, which display the same symptoms observed in human patients (for more information see this recent open-access review by David Katz and colleagues) . These animals that fully recapitulate the disease have permitted us to demonstrate that the neurons have a constellation of minor defects, but that no degeneration is occurring, and that our brain need MECP2 at all times. Whenever the gene gets inactivated the disease appears.

Genetically modified mice have made crucial contributions to our understanding of Rett syndrome. Image courtesy of Understanding Animal Research.

Genetically modified mice have made crucial contributions to our understanding of Rett syndrome. Image courtesy of Understanding Animal Research.

Rett syndrome is mainly a neuronal disease, and obviously the amount of research we can do with the girls’ brains is limited. Because of this a range of mouse models of the disease have been instrumental for the study of the pathology. Furthermore, the same mice have permitted scientists to find the first molecular pathways that appear altered in the disease leading to test some therapeutic molecules in mice. Translational research leads to a clinical trial; and this is the case here, for example a clinical trial of IGF1 therapy is currently under way. Importantly, in 2007, Professor Adrian Bird and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh demonstrated in a mouse model that it is in principle possible to reverse Rett syndrome, and that MECP2-related disorders can be treated even at late stages of disease progression. However, the functional role(s) of MECP2 and their relevance to different aspects of development and neurological function are not fully understood, and different mutations in the MECP2 have varying effects on these roles, which any treatments will have to account for. Research indicates that too much MECP2 expression can be damaging, so scientists will need to find a way to express just the right amount of MECP2, in just the areas it is required. The clinical community has decided that no drug can be given to Rett syndrome girls without having first been tested in two different laboratories and on at least two diverse mice models of the disease. Nevertheless, this research is very promising, and not just for those with Rett syndrome and their families, as the insights gained through developing therapies for Rett syndrome are likely to be applicable to therapeutic strategies for a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders. Studies in mouse models of Rett syndrome have a crucial role to play in this ongoing work.

proRETT is an association founded in 2004 by parents of children born with Rett syndrome, who began their activity by raising funds for the US based Rett Syndrome Research Foundation (now the International Rett Syndrome Foundation). proRett now supports the work of top Rett researchers in Italy, the UK and USA. I am a professor of molecular biology who has worked on MECP2 since I was a post-doctoral fellow in the team of the late Dr Alan P Wolffe at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

In 2005 I met with proRETT to launch a collaboration in order to accelerate the scientific interest in the disease in Italy and abroad, and over the next few years   we worked together to organize two international scientific meetings (e.g. the European Working Group on Rett Syndrome) and attracted the interest of several Italian researcher to the disease. In 2010 proRETT felt the necessity to support more research in Italy and decided to open a laboratory – the San Raffaele Rett Research Center  – at the prestigious San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan. The laboratory, which I lead, employs 2 post-doctoral scientists, 3 PhD students and an undergraduate student. Further a second laboratory employing 8 scientists, supervised by myself and Danish researcher Dr. Charlotte Kilstrup-Nielsen, and fully dedicated to Rett syndrome is located at the University of Insubria in Busto Arsizio. As I outlined earlier, our research, as well as that of many other laboratories in the world, is interested in defining the molecular pathways that get deregulated because of a dysfunctional MECP2.  We are also examining the role of the gene during early development and outside of the brain itself. Eventually we hope to develop some novel protocols of gene therapy that can reverse Rett syndrome.

The Rett syndrome research team at the University of Insubria in Busto Arsizio

The Rett syndrome research team at the University of Insubria in Busto Arsizio

Because one of the two labs supported by proRETT is in Busto Arsizio and in Busto Arsizio there is a strong female volleyball team – Unendo Yamamay – almost one year ago we decided to organize a match of the Yamamay team dedicated to proRETT. The idea was for a female team to support research on a disease that affects girls, with both volleyball and research in the same town. The team were keen to help and the event was scheduled to be held on Saturday 15th March 2014. That evening we would have been the guests of Yamamay, and we were going to hold a raffle to raise money for research.

Unfortunately, once the event was announced last month, the trouble started. It began when the Busto Arsizio branch of the large Italian animal rights group the Lega Anti Vivisesione published decontextualised images of dead mice (seems familiar – SR)not belonging to my lab on their facebook page and claimed that our activities were unscientific  in order to stir up anger amongst their supporters against our lab (you can read more details about this in Italian here). They then tried to start a boycott of Unendo Yamamay and started a mass  e-mailing campaign, writing on social networks and to the proRETT and Unendo Yamamay. At the end of this nightmare, and because the local police headquarters was not confident about keeping the event safe from disruption by violent animal rights extremists, we had to give up. The match went ahead but proRETT were no longer guests, with Unendo Yamamay issuing a statement expressing their extreme regret at the events leading to the cancellation that had “caused serious harm to persons engaged daily in medical research against this terrible disease”.

Organizers had hoped to sell 6 thousand tickets for the lottery in aid of Rett syndrome research

Organizers had hoped to sell 6 thousand tickets for the lottery in aid of Rett syndrome research

The cancellation was felt as a tragedy by the parents, who, obviously, felt themselves even more alone than before. Because of that we decided to hold the raffle in our university in Busto Arsizio on Friday evening the in order to raise some money for proRETT, where we were joined by some parents and girls with Rett syndrome, as well as several journalists, and the president of Pro-Test Italia, who chose to show solidarity by attending. In the end we raised almost 6,000 euros from the raffle, less than we had initially hoped, but enough to show us and the parents of girls with Rett syndrome that there are still good people who are prepared to stand up for vital research.

We need to make sure this never happens in Italy again. This fight goes beyond Rett girls but is in the name of the progress of biomedical science in Italy and in the world; it is in the name of a future with less suffering. We would like the parents of Rett girls  and researchers dedicated to curing this disease to not feel alone, so we ask you to join good people in Italy and across the world to show your support for our girls, and your contempt for animal rights extremism, by making a small donation to proRETT.

Thank you.

Nicoletta Landsberger

To learn more about the role of animal research in advancing human and veterinary medicine, and the threat posed to this progress by the animal rights lobby, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Italian Researchers Threatened by Extremists

Italian research is in danger. Not only because of those seeking to twist the new EU Directive 60/3010/EU to their own agenda, but also because of a rise in extremism directed at the researchers themselves. Most recently, posters have appeared on the streets of Milan targeting specific scientists.

It would appear that animal rights groups in Italy are getting bolder. Rather than engage in reasoned debate, they would rather scare researchers who were beginning to find their collective voice.

As several Italian newspapers reported, these posters provide personal information about researchers, including their names, home addresses and home telephone numbers, inviting the public to call them at home to protest their research. Furthermore, the walls near the victims’ homes have been covered with insults by extremists.

The researchers in question are Alberto Corsini and Edgardo D’Angelo, both Professors at the University of Milan where hey both do research using animal models. Professor Corsini studies vascular diseases while Prof. D’Angelo studies physiology of respiration – both areas of utmost importance to human health.

They are not the only scientists under fire. Maura Francolini, researcher at the University of Milan, and Claudio Genchi, Professor at the faculty of veterinary at the University of Milan have received similar harassment.

Edgardo D’Angelo, vivisector, animal assassin, he is your neighbour, he lives in *address* For over 50 years he has killed and tortured dogs, rabbits and other animals for experiments about respiratory physiopathology. Shame on you, assassin! Call the killer and let him know what you think about him *number*


Edgardo D’Angelo, vivisector, animal assassin, he is your neighbour, he lives in *address*
For over 50 years he has killed and tortured dogs, rabbits and other animals for experiments about respiratory physiopathology. Shame on you, assassin!

Call the killer and let him know what you think about him *number*

Alberto Corsini, vivisector, animal assassin, he is your neighbour, he lives at *address* For more than 30 years he has killed and tortured animals for the department of Pharmacology at the University of Milan. In one of his latest experiments he intoxicated with drugs and vivisected 63 rabbits. Shame on you, assassin!  Call the killer and let him know what you think about him *number*

Alberto Corsini, vivisector, animal assassin, he is your neighbour, he lives at *address*
For more than 30 years he has killed and tortured animals for the department of Pharmacology at the University of Milan. In one of his latest experiments he intoxicated with drugs and vivisected 63 rabbits. Shame on you, assassin!

Call the killer and let him know what you think about him *number*

Urging activists to call and harass scientists is a classic extremist tactic, during the 1990-2000s, many executives at Huntingdon Life Sciences received night time phone calls (as well as “visits”) in an effort to cow them into submission. More recently, Negotiation is Over (which itself is now “over”), posted the phone number of Prof O’Leary in Marino’s campaign against him. One hopes that the Italian posters won’t be followed by more extreme actions, as they were in Santa Cruz in 2008 when a researcher’s house was firebombed only days after posters appeared in a local coffee shop.

Thankfully, the Italian researchers have been supported by the Minister of Education, University and Research, Maria Chiara Carrozza and the University of Milan, through the Dean, Gianluca Vago. The Dean also confirmed the efforts of the university to stand up for animal research and the people working with animals, reminding people that the University itself has been in the firing line when animal rights extremists broke into the animal facility and took 100 mice and 1 rabbit from the animal facility.

I wish to express my deepest sympathy with #MIUR researchers at the University of Milan for the intimidation and threats they suffered

Deputy Maria Pia Locatelli declared at the Chamber of Deputies, that aggressions and intimidations from animal activists towards science are almost becoming a habit and that all politicians should condemn these actions, even the ones that always defended animal rights in the parliament. Senator Carlo Giovanardi has also stated his support in parliament for the researchers and has demanded those responsible for the postings be found as soon as possible. In fact, DIGOS, an italian law enforcement agency that usually investigates also in terrorism cases, will examine this action.

This new activities is the latest in a growing line of actions by activists. A few weeks ago Caterina Simonsen, an Italian veterinary student whose own illnesses mean she requires medical interventions to breathe, stood up for animal research with a picture and statement supporting animal research. In response, activists attacked her on Facebook posting insults and death threats and informing her that her life was “worth nothing”. Fortunately, after this miserable attack, Caterina got the support of several politicians and celebrities.

While extremists in Italy continue to take steps which prevent open dialogue on this issue, it will not be possible to have the reasoned discussion necessary for people to understand the arguments on both sides. Pro-Test Italia has held public meetings in order to help educate the public on this issue, and we welcome their crucial efforts.  We condemn those that threaten and harass scientists and members of the public, and we urge everyone to stand up and reject such activities. Animal research remains important to those in Italy and beyond, and we must continue to make the strong case for its continuance.


Global Trends in Animal Rights Activism 2013

In 2011 I wrote a post about the number of animal rights incidents posted on the Bite Back website (warning: AR extremist website) which logs many incidents of animal rights extremism around the world.

The analysis only looks at the July – September period as it was too cumbersome to get all the figures for the entire year. It was assumed that these figures should be representative of animal rights activity over a year. The analysis only looked at 8 countries which had the most activism – it is possible other countries now have higher levels of activism but were overlooked.

This post provides an update, adding in data from 2012 and 2013*.

Animal Rights Activity 2004 to 2013

The first thing that is clear is that in the last two years the number of incidents in the 3-month period has fallen from an average of 88 down to 55 (around 19 incidents  month across all 8 countries).

Graph 2004-13 animal rights activism - global trends

Most countries have seen a dip in the level of activism – but let’s look closer.

The USA fell to the lowest number of recorded incidents in 2012, but then rose to 31 in 2013. The latest rise seems to be due to a spate of attacks against fur farmers including that have seen over 7,500 mink released between July-October 2013.

The UK saw a spike in 2012 before falling back to the low level seen in 2010-11. Three quarters of 2012 incidents were related to the freeing of poultry from British farms (and almost all the rest related to farm animal “liberations” or anti-hunting activities).

Sweden saw a massive drop from 57 incidents in 2011 to just 5 in the 3 month periods in both 2012 and 2013. Spain has seen a slight rise in incidents, whereas Mexico, Germany and Ireland continue to see a decline in activism.

Overall it is reassuring to see the numbers of animal rights incidents decline in the last two years – however, it is possible that this could simply be down to lower levels of reporting of activism (on BiteBack).

*Disclaimer: I may have made some small errors while counting by hand, however these errors should not be big enough to affect the statistics overall. It is also worth noting that not all global incidents are likely logged on BiteBack. Furthermore, I did not investigate the nature of each incident – some are arson attacks and vandalism, others are empty threats and the release or imprisonment of activists – I have not differentiated between these incidents.

Time for a change?

Scientists and the scientific community receive some fairly standard advice when it comes to direct response to some animal rights groups’ stunts and campaigns. What is it?  Typically some variant of:  Ignore it.

  • Don’t give them free publicity, the attention just helps them grow.
  • Don’t acknowledge that their campaigns affect us, it will just reinforce and encourage them.
  • They win if it gets to you; they win if you take time and energy away from your science in order to respond.

The question is whether this advice, fairly standard over at least the last couple of decades, is good advice.  Is ignoring animal rights and absolutist campaigns a good idea?  Is it effective in the short-term? Does it decrease an individual scientist’s risk of being subjected to harassment campaigns?  Does it decrease an institution’s exposure to activists’ campaigns and “bad” publicity?

Picture Credit: Lorenzo Todaro

Pro-Test Italia: They’re not ignoring the problem.

What about the long-term?  Does an “ignore it” strategy work against the goal of promoting public understanding of the role of humane, necessary and legal nonhuman animal-based research is science and medicine? More broadly, does a blinder-based strategy hinder efforts to increase scientific literacy and understanding via scientists’ participation in public education, outreach, and engagement?

Unfortunately, there is little solid data or empirical study to support an evidence-based approach in selecting the best strategy for responding to various campaigns by groups opposed to nonhuman animal research.

What if we look to the current state and conclusions of those engaged in fighting back against other anti-science campaigns?  Campaigns to undermine other areas of science and medicine, ranging from evolution to climate change to vaccines, have resulted in significant negative effect on the public, science, and scientists.  Viewing all of these, we see that almost without question, more public engagement and accurate information is what is required to mount an effective defense and to bring informed, serious consideration to a public that otherwise may fail to hear us above the noise.  We also see robust education efforts  for evolution, climate change, and vaccines.

We have written many times here about education and outreach programs for nonhuman animal research and the perils of “no comment” approaches. On the animal research front, history also provides evidence that we should not always ignore what appear to us as outrageous and ridiculous stunts and campaigns. Ignoring them does nothing to diminish their impact or growth. Nor does silence provide help for those who would like to respond but may not have full or accurate information with which to address the issues activists raise.

Despite being primarily ignored by the scientific community for decades, animal rights groups have not gone away. Their number, reach, income, and supporters have only grown. Consider PETA, for example. Founded by two activists in 1980, it is now arguably the most famous animal rights group in the world. They also claim to have three million members and supporters. PETA’s 2012 revenue of over $30 million, with $15 million going to outreach and international grassroots campaigns, solidly demonstrates its growth over 30 years.

Ignoring PETA has not made them go away.  Nor does PETA’s success depend upon attention directed at them from the scientific community.  At this point in time, a mix of celebrity endorsements, stunts, and emotive campaigns successfully drive and sustain PETA’s publicity. Additional efforts by the scientific community to counter campaigns of misrepresentation, provide accurate information, and to condemn PETA’s promotion of violence toward scientists can at least make sure that the voices of scientists are heard in the media coverage. In some cases effective engagement early on can help journalists to see that the claims are inaccurate, and stop the story in it’s tracks.

On the contrary, an argument can be made that ignoring PETA’s escalating antics and failing to advance a public counter to their claims may have facilitated the success with which PETA has gained support.  For example, if there is no public response or condemnation when PETA does something like releasing a videogame that promotes “beating up” scientists, the game is unlikely to go away. There will be little chance that scientists will reach this audience in order to counter the game’s gross misrepresentations of laboratory animal care.  If we say nothing, the individuals playing the videogame, the game’s designer, and those providing positive media coverage of the game will fail to receive the message that it is not ok to promote violence against scientists (or others with whom you disagree). In effect, violence against scientists will be further “normalized” as a tactic that can be rationalized or acceptable.

PETA's MMA game depiction of animal research.

PETA’s MMA game depiction of animal research.

Failing to respond to PETA’s game and failure to launch a sustained and effective response to other animal activist campaigns has another downside. Without a firm response we may signal that animal-based research is a relatively weak target for activists’ campaigns. Scientific animal research is a tiny fraction of all human use of nonhuman animals. Yet the energy and resources activist groups direct toward this use likely outstrips that directed to agricultural use.  There are multiple reasons for this.  Among them is that the great majority of the public eats animals and is unlikely to be sympathetic or comfortable with campaigns against agriculture.

Another reason is that laboratory research and science in general are more difficult for the public to understand. As such, they are easier to misrepresent, particularly if the scientific community doesn’t effectively, consistently, and strongly counter with facts. Finally, scientists likely appear to be relatively easy targets for harassment.  Can we counter this effectively?  Yes.  Beyond engaging in more public scientific education, there are a number of ways to protest when PETA does something like launch “Cage Fight.”  Draw public attention to it.  Explain why it should be condemned.  Write to the fighters and their sponsors. Write to the celebrities endorsing it, to the company that designed the game.  Ask scientific societies to speak out against this tactic.

It is sometimes puzzling that the scientific community expresses relatively little interest or sustained attention to the efforts of animal activist groups that aim to end our work.  Competing time demands are the primary reason, but probably not the whole story. Rather, many may be unconvinced that the activities of these groups will have any substantial effect on science, the public, or the future. Parallels to the effects that climate change denialists, anti-vaccine proponents, or creationists have had on science and the public suggest otherwise.

It may also be the case that most scientists are simply unaware of the scope and depth of activities by groups like PETA.  Rather than assuming knowledge of the current state, reach, and effect of anti-animal research activism, take even a few minutes to pay closer attention to PETA and other groups.  View their materials not only through your eyes, but also those of students and other citizens who have a voice in policies that affect science.

One starting place:  Look at these four websites—each designed for a specific demographic group.

In other words, ignore the standard advice and consider that it may be time to change strategies. Consider that our efforts at education, outreach, and public engagement need to continue to evolve in order to be responsive and relevant. When we largely ignore groups that oppose animal research, we also remain ignorant of the messages and information that the public receives about our work.  In turn, we miss opportunities to bring scientists’ knowledge and perspectives to discussion that is occurring in widely-consumed public forums– blogs, facebook, twitter, and other media.  These discussions will not stop or wait for scientists to contribute, they will simply continue without the balance that we could provide.

The rise of groups like PETA has demonstrated that the ear of the public is attuned to hearing about animal research, especially so for those who have grown up with PETA.  In order to be heard, however, we also need to listen and to understand public questions, concerns, and priorities. Despite all of the escalating pressures on science, it is time to renew and increase efforts to more broadly communicate to the public that our science is in their interest and to their benefit.

Some may choose – as animal rights groups and absolutists advocate—to believe that animal research should end and that all should forgo the benefits that it produces for society. More likely however, is that those who understand the necessity and benefits of the work will also understand that the choices PETA offers are not harmless. It is for this reason that groups like PETA have the most to gain when we remain silent. In absence of counter with accurate information they are able to paint a picture of a world in which ending animal research has no downside for the public.  It is up to us to show this cartoon vision is false and to engage the public in serious dialogue about the challenging decisions that science presents to all of us.

Speaking of Research

Animal rights activism and medicine 100 years ago

There is a rather interesting book, Animal Experimentation and Medical Progress by William Williams Keen, published in 1914, which describes some of the incidents in the animal research debate during the early 1900s.  What is  striking about this book is that it illustrates very clearly how little (if at all) the arguments and tactics of animal rights proponents have changed over the last 100 years.

Consider the kind of letters that scientists received because of their work with animals:


Sometimes, animal rights activists also felt it was also important in making their point to include other members of the scientist’s family in their missives.

letterThe language is nearly identical to the anonymous emails or web-postings attacking scientists today.

A century ago those opposed to the use of animals in medical research were already using deceptive, calumnious imagery, suggesting animals underwent surgical procedures without anesthetic,  which evoked the following, unanimous response from the English Royal Commission:


And a hundred years ago, the scientific  community was already expressing  disbelief and regret at the lack of understanding of the work, and the activists’ willful ignorance of those that denied its benefits —

faseb_v2Scientists were not alone in their outrage.  One hundred years ago medical professionals from all over the world were prompted to issue a  statement at the International Medical Congress supporting animal research:


Of course, Charles Darwin himself, had these famous words to offer some 30 years earlier:

Fortunately, some things have in fact changed over the last 100 years.

Back then we did not have antibiotics, nor vaccinations for terrible childhood diseases.  We do today.  Vaccines that save more than 3 millions people per year, and prevent millions of others from suffering from disease and permanent disabilities.

Back then X-rays machines were just being created, the machines were bulky and access was extremely difficult.  Today X-rays, doppler ultrasound, positron emission tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, are all widely available providing some of the most useful diagnostic tools.

1901 Bayer Heroin ad

Back then Heroin was used in children’s syrup to treat cough and bloodletting was still used to treat fever and inflammation. Today, effective pain relievers and anti-inflammatories are widely available in the pharmacy at the corner.

Back then premature babies almost invariably died.  Today, the development of lung surfactants is saving the lives of babies across the world every day.

And the list of the benefits of animal research goes on and on…

Perhaps it can all be summarized by the fact that that back then life expectancy in the US was 52 years.  Today, we are living an average of 80 years.  In other words, in merely 3 generations, we increased our life expectancy by 60%.  This is time we all now enjoy with our loved ones, children and grandchildren.  Thanks to science.  Thanks to scientists. Thanks to responsible, animal research.

That is why one cannot help but keep repeating Darwin’s famous words “…he who retards the progress of physiology is committing a crime against mankind.”