Tag Archives: Tom Holder

The antivivisection movement and how to stand up to it

Tom Holder at the Pro-Test for Science RallyIn April 2014 Speaking of Research founder, Tom Holder, published a paper in EMBO reports looking at the structure and motivations of antivivisection groups and organizations, as well as how he got involved in defending animal research. Now, a year after its publication, this article is free-to-view online, or as a pdf. We are reproducing it below with the permission of EMBO reports (long form links have been converted into hyperlinks for the sake of the web format).

Standing up for Science

The antivivisection movement and how to stand up to it

Animal research has been and remains crucial to the development of modern medicine. The reasons for ongoing research are manifold from finding ways to treat cancer to understanding the mechanisms behind neurodegeneration to developing new vaccines against HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. Nearly all of us benefit from medical treatments made possible through animal research, and with so much at stake, it is important that scientists make the case for the importance of using animals in research. With animal rights extremism at an all‐time low, there has never been a better time for scientists to overcome their reluctance to talk about the benefits of their work.

Sadly, polls show that opposition to animal research among young people, for example in the UK and USA, is significantly higher than among those aged over 65 [1], [2]. In my view, this is in part because of the large amount of misinformation propagated across the Internet by opponents of animal research—the “antivivisection” (AV) movement. Moreover, the past decades have seen bouts of intense activism—including harassment, threats and violence directed towards scientists—aimed at shutting down animal research. During the same period, the scientific community have worked diligently to replace, refine and reduce the use of animals in research, making much progress; however, these efforts have not been sufficient to satisfy the passions of some activists.

Part of the problem is that scientists rarely engage with those who are opposed to animal research, which can leave them detached from the need to justify or explain their work. This lack of communication also creates an information vacuum in the public sphere about the need to use animals. In a recent poll in the UK, only 31% of respondents felt “fairly well informed […] about science and scientific research/development” [2].

“With animal rights extremism at an all‐time low, there has never been a better time for scientists to overcome their reluctance to talk about the benefits of their work.”

Ignoring the animal rights community has not worked. Wherever there has been a vacuum of understanding about research, they have filled it with disinformation based on rare instances of negligence and shocking examples of seemingly barbaric experiments, accompanied by stories describing animal research as unnecessary and out‐dated. Some animal rights groups mask their aim to ban animal research behind the noble banner of animal welfare—legitimately criticising incidents involving substandard animal care but then implying that these represent not the exception, but the rule. Yet, the huge improvements in laboratory animal welfare will never satisfy those animal rights groups that have a fundamental ideological opposition to such experiments. Instead, AV groups often buttress their position with unfounded assertions that such methods can be entirely replaced or cannot provide useful results. As activists build a seemingly stronger—even if bogus—case against the value of using animals in research, the public support for, or indifference to, some illegal activities rises.

I actually dislike the term “antivivisection.” It is scientifically inaccurate, as much animal research is non‐invasive and does not involve cutting live animals (vivisection). Nonetheless, those opposed to animal research, particularly in the UK, have taken the word to describe their movement and it is a useful term for their subsection of the wider animal rights movement.

Sidebar A:  Activism and extremism
It is useful to make a distinction between activism and extremism. Activism is the use of legal campaigning techniques to bring about a change. Such activities include letter‐writing campaigns, producing leaflets and peaceful demonstrations—all hallmarks of an open democracy. Extremism is where activism moves beyond the law. This can include vandalism, harassment, breaking into research facilities, and even arson and physical violence.

I first became interested in the issue of animal research and animal rights as a student at Oxford University in the UK in 2005. Studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics, I was probably more qualified to become a politician than I was to discuss animal research, but as I returned to my second year at Oxford, the hot topic was that AV extremists had burned down our student boathouses in protest against the new animal research facility the university was building. I became interested in the subject and spent some time researching AV websites. I was surprised to discover claims that animal research does not work and that it has held back science by many decades. The “33 facts of vivisection”, for example, references 33 claims (sometimes this list is expanded or reduced) as to why animal research does not work. What I found most concerning at the time was that the claims seemed to me to be the result of purposeful misrepresentation.

In early January 2005, it became apparent that a number of Oxford students felt the same way. The (now defunct) Oxford Gossip Internet forum was full of heated debates about animal research, and pro‐research/anti‐AV groups were gathering support on Facebook. At the same time, animal rights groups were posting calls to action to harass students, professors and partners of the university. On 22 January 2006, a communiqué from the Animal Liberation Front read: “This ALF team is calling out to the movement to unite and fight against the University on a maximum impact scale, we must stand up, DO WHATEVER IT TAKES and blow these fucking monsters off the face of the planet. Information, tools and resources are out there for everyone to take part in smashing the University of Oxford, all you need do is find them! All that stands between the animals and victory is our fear, GET OVER IT! Fear is their most valued weapon and the animals cannot afford for us to work within their boundaries. We must target their construction companies and the University’s current and future building projects. We must target professors, teachers, heads, students, investors, partners, supporters and ANYONE that dares to deal in any part of the University in any way. There is no time for debate and there is no time for protest, this is make or break time and from now on, ANYTHING GOES. We cannot fail these animals that will end up in those death chambers.”. This climate of hostility and fear understandably deterred many scientists from speaking up for research, which left the animal rights movement free reign to control the arguments presented in the media.

Ultimately, the galvanisation of the animal research advocacy movement fell to Laurie Pycroft, a then 16‐year old boy of whom British professor Sir Robert Winston described as having: “put the medical and scientific establishment, drug companies and universities to shame”. On 28 January 2006, while visiting his girlfriend, Laurie came across an animal rights demonstration protesting against the construction of the new Oxford Biomedical Research Facility. Frustrated with what he saw, he entered a shop, bought a large piece of card and marker pen and made a placard saying “Support Progress—Build the Oxford Lab!” He stood near the animal rights protest and held up his sign, despite the abuse hurled at him by AV activists.

Laurie wrote a blog entry about his day, announcing that he would hold a pro‐research rally in Oxford on February 25 to coincide with a national animal rights march through Oxford (a “pro‐test,” one of his blog followers wryly noted). In response, a handful of Oxford students approached Laurie and the “Pro‐Test” committee was born. The committee came to the decision that if we wanted people to follow us, we would have to shed our anonymity and come out publicly. To date, none of the committee has received anything nastier than a few vitriolic emails.

The Pro‐Test rally was hugely successful and the headline in the Guardian said it all: “The silent majority finds a voice”. Outnumbering the AV rally more than five‐to‐one, 850 students, scientists and members of the public marched through the streets of Oxford. From this point on, the pro‐research movement expanded rapidly, engaging in school, university, radio and TV debates up and down the country. Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister at the time, signed the Coalition for Medical Progress’s “People’s Petition,” which accumulated more than 20,000 signatures in support of animal research. Moreover, Blair wrote an open letter to the Telegraph newspaper stating his support for animal research and the Pro‐Test movement. In June 2006, Pro‐Test held a second rally, once again bringing hundreds of people to the streets of Oxford.

Oxford University opened its new Biomedical Sciences Building in October 2008, offering state of the art equipment and a “gold standard” in animal care. Perhaps Pro‐Test’s biggest contribution was breaking the taboo that said that those who supported animal research should not say so openly. It is a taboo that must continue to be broken.

In March 2008, I became a fellow in public outreach at Americans for Medical Progress (AMP, USA) and founded Speaking of Research (SR), which aimed to provide accurate information about animal research and help mobilise students and staff to defend it. Over the next year, a committee of researchers, advocates technicians and science communicators came together to help run SR, giving talks, writing articles and reaching out to those affected by AV extremism.

The USA presented different challenges to the UK. National coverage is much harder to come by: incidents in one state are often not reported in the next, causing institutions to believe that tackling activism is “someone else’s problem.” I spent much time touring facilities and it was easy to see stark differences in approach. Those who had been targeted by animal rights protesters in the past had opened up their facilities for local journalists and residents to see. In this way, their local communities could assess for themselves the veracity of animal rights accusations. Those universities that were less open sometimes found themselves on the end of a protracted animal rights campaign. Scientists at UCLA, for example, had their houses flooded and were sent bombs and razor blades by mail. It was beginning to look like Oxford all over again.

In 2009, several weeks after David Jentsch, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry & Behavioural Sciences at UCLA, had his car firebombed by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), he and a small committee, myself included, organised a rally to stand up against this extremism. UCLA Pro‐Test was born; it was later renamed Pro‐Test for Science.

On 22 April 2009, 40 animal rights activists gathered for World Week for Animals in Laboratories. Across the road, approximately 800 scientists, animal technicians and other members of UCLA marched in support of science and in opposition to animal rights extremism. The rally gave scientists an opportunity to explain the importance of animal research to journalists and members of the UCLA community. The Pro‐Test petition launched at the event garnered more than 11,000 signatures and was handed to representatives of the NIH at a second pro‐research rally 1 year later.

As SR marks its sixth birthday, I have learnt the importance of scientists supporting one another. Many researchers have felt isolated by their institution’s leadership, some of whom would rather end controversial research than stand up to activists. SR has always aimed to reach out to those researchers who have been targeted, giving them an outlet to discuss their research when their institution will not.

During 8 years of involvement, I have seen many different approaches to communicating the role of animals in research—everything from open discussion to a complete unwillingness to even acknowledge such research is conducted at an institution. I have also had many opportunities to interact and discuss with those opposed to animal research. This has allowed me to build a picture of how I believe the AV movement functions, how it is structured and the factors affecting its size and strength.

“Many researchers have felt isolated by their institution’s leadership, some of whom would rather end controversial research than stand up to activists”

AV groups and organisations vary in size and structure. Some can count their members on the one hand, while others, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA, USA), claim their membership in millions. Many of the larger animal rights organisations deal with a variety of related issues including animals for food, fur farming, pet ownership and hunting, while smaller groups often focus on just one issue.

Activists are those employed, either professionally or as volunteers, by AV groups (AVGs) and AV organisations (AVOs). While the line between AVGs and AVOs is not clear‐cut, AVOs are usually formal organisations that employ staff and tend to have a much larger turnover and greater assets. Examples of AVOs would include the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV; UK), Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM; USA) and PETA. Conversely, AVGs tend to be smaller, usually less established groups that do not salary their members, but may remunerate them for work done. Examples include Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC; UK), SPEAK (UK), Negotiation is Over (NIO; USA) and Fermare Green Hill (Stop Green Hill; Italy). AVGs may grow into AVOs; both PETA and SAEN (Stop Animal Exploitation Now!, USA) grew from being groups of like‐minded people into tax‐registered non‐profits. However, many AVGs appear to prefer the flexibility associated with their informality and small size.

To study the AV movement, it is important to keep in mind that animal rights activism has become a profession for many of those involved. While many sociologists originally believed that social movements were simply forms of collective action by individuals with common grievances, the view was later criticised as incomplete since many such grievances exist without associated social movements. The development of Resource Mobilisation Theory (RMT) noted that individuals require sufficient resources to be available to form a movement and that this has a significant impact on the potential success of a movement [3]. Figure 1 uses RMT to illustrate the movement of people and resources in the AV movement. Key resources include money, communication tools, influential networks and the activists themselves.

Image Credit Tom Holder, Originally Published in EMBO Reports DOI: 10.1002/embr.201438837

Click to Enlarge

Figure 1. A model of the antivivisection movement
The blue dashed arrows indicate the movement of people within the antivivisection movement: a person might read the website of an AVG and decide to change from non‐supporter (either someone who disagrees with the AV views or has not formed an opinion either way) to a supporter, donating money or spending their time and effort signing petitions. The green arrows denote the movement of resources (e.g. time and money), though it should be noted that these are not exhaustive lists of resources. In return for their time and effort, that person might get a “feel‐good buzz” about helping animals, or from the acceptance of their peers. Later, they might decide to get more involved. This change is the movement from supporter to activist (though the divisions are not clear‐cut). The activist still feels good about what he or she is doing—possibly with a greater social acceptance from their newfound colleagues—and might also find himself or herself remunerated. Note that by giving time or money to any one AVG/AVO, they are choosing not to give those resources to another, so there is a natural competition between these AVGs/AVOs. Years later, the person might find they have less time and will drop back to supporter status, or might find that the massive publicity surrounding an associated movement draws their time and effort (turquoise dashed arrows), such that they stop their involvement with the original AV movement. Such associated movements need not have any relation to animal rights, but the more similar they are to the AV movement, the more competition there will be. Legitimacy is an important resource that both supporters and activists provide. An animal rights group that can only muster 20 supporters at important demonstrations will eventually find its supporters moving to competing AVG/AVOs. When the entire antivivisection movement comes under negative media spotlight, or as laws or police activities make certain activities more difficult, many supporters may move to other associated movements, and many activists may choose to put their expertise into other areas.

The amount of money provided by supporters is not small. In the USA, PETA had an income of US$35.3 million in 2013, while the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) received US$180 million in 2012 from its 11 million supporters. The combined income of the three largest AV organisations in the UK exceeds £5 million. Even non‐registered groups can accrue large sums of money. SHAC activists amassed “around £1 million in donations to SHAC’s collection buckets and bank account”.

Given these sums, it is not surprising to see a certain level of competition for supporters and funding between organisations. The AVOs work hard to break the biggest stories, for example through undercover filming or by trawling through research papers or reports for sensational and often groundless claims about animal abuse. Between 2007 and 2011, for example, SAEN made more than six complaints per year to the USDA, often following up on rejected complaints with accusations that the USDA was failing in its role of regulator (e.g. here). In 2012, PETA alleged animal cruelty relating to sound localisation experiments on cats at the University of Wisconsin‐Madison. Both the USDA and the National Institutes of Health Office of Laboratory Animal cleared the university and found the allegations baseless.

Despite the competition and some friction between animal rights groups, many appear to be closely intertwined, with activists moving between them. Jerry Vlasak, who is currently a press officer for the Animal Liberation Press Office—the mouthpiece for the ALF—has been involved in SPEAK, the Animal Defence League, Sea Shepherd and PCRM. These fluid movements are reminiscent of the way top businessmen move between the boards of firms as the skills gained within the animal rights movement are easily transferable. Alistair Currie moved from Campaign Director at BUAV to Campaign Coordinator at PETA and finally left the AV movement to become a spokesman for Free Tibet. Just as an experienced marketing consultant may move from a clothes firm to a car manufacturer, so a professional activist moves from movement to movement as the relative tides change. This reflects the professional nature of activism; however, some activists have suggested a “contamination” effect from animal rights activism that can make it harder to move out of the AV movement and into unrelated areas of campaigning.

However, it would seem that some prominent activists have also risen through the ranks, particularly of AVGs, on the back of extreme activities they have carried out under the banner of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), an extremist group made up of small autonomous cells. Mel Broughton was convicted of conspiracy to commit arson in 1999 but went on to lead several campaigns, including against Oxford University. Luke Steele was sentenced to 18 months in 2012 for “harassing staff at Harlan laboratories” and now runs several AV organisations including the Anti‐Vivisection Coalition. Those serving prison sentenced gain prestige among parts of the AV community who support them and are quick to welcome them back into the fold upon release.

The tide of resources into the AV movement has ebbed and flowed over time. In 1903, after Stephen Coleridge, head of the National Anti‐Vivisection Society, lost £2,000 (over £200,000 in today’s money) in a libel action brought by the researcher William Bayliss during the Brown Dog Affair [4], the issue of animal research came to the attention of the media. As a result, resources flowed in; NAVS raised £5,735 (over £500,000 in today’s money) in just 4 months. Growing public disquiet about animal research also led to a string of dog protection bills being presented to parliament including the 1906 Dogs Act.

Activism waxed and waned in the following decades. In the 1960s, Ronnie Lee founded Band of Mercy, a direct action hunt saboteur group. Such groups helped to train animal rights activists in direct action methods. In 1975, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer wrote the seminal book, Animal Liberation, which provided the moral case for a new generation of activists [5]. The following year Ronnie Lee founded the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The 1980s saw the founding of the Animal Rights Militia, who sent bombs to politicians and animal researchers. By the early 1990s, AVGs were becoming more active. Extreme groups such as the Justice Department and Animal Rights Militia were abandoning the doctrine of non‐violence. There were dozens of bomb attacks against researchers and organisations.

In 1996–1997, activists Greg Avery and his first wife Heather Nicholson ran a 10‐month campaign that closed the Consort Kennels, a facility that bred dogs for medical research. In 1997, activists began a similar campaign that would eventually close Hillgrove Cat Farm. These campaigns were, on the face of it, legally conducted protests. Nonetheless, as support flowed in, some activists believed they had licence to take more extreme, illegal, actions: the Hillgrove Cat Farm campaign resulted in 21 jail sentences.

In 1999, Avery founded SHAC, whose members harassed and threatened staff at Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), HLS’s clients and HLS’s clients’ other clients over a period of 10 years. These tactics have spread widely: the same were used in Oxford to target the contractors, and the HLS campaign was exported to the USA in 2004 under the leadership of Kevin Kjonaas, who had spent 2 years working with Avery in the UK. John Cook, the author of a Salon article on SHAC, summarises their tactics thus: “SHAC’s modus operandi is simple, elegant and shockingly effective: Publish the names, home addresses and telephone numbers of executives and employees of Huntingdon and any companies it does business with; identify these individuals as ‘targets’” [6].

The approach of seasoned activists is professional: they take on a campaign, complete it and then look for the next one to start. It seems to me that the speed and size of a campaign is often determined by the donations to the previous campaign; in my analysis, each of Greg Avery’s campaigns was bigger than the last. As such, successful campaign leaders become role models and groom supporters to become activists (Fig 1).

Most campaigns have been relatively short. Consort Kennels was closed in 10 months, Stop Primate Experimentation at Cambridge achieved its goals within 1 year and its successor, SPEAK, forced out the first Oxford lab building contractors in less than 6 months. As a campaign drags on, it can become harder to find supporters to volunteer time and money to the cause. This can increase the pressure to take more desperate measures. Perhaps the most drastic was the grave‐robbing of Gladys Hammond’s body by the Animal Rights Militia (ARM) in 2004. As the Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs campaign (SNGP) dragged into its fifth year, ARM extremists stole the remains of the deceased mother‐in‐law of one of the guinea pig farm’s owners. Four members of SNGP were later convicted of using the desecration to blackmail the family into shutting down the farm, which happened the following year.

Such actions brought widespread public condemnation and the British police were granted new powers to tackle animal rights extremism. The UK Government set up the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) to deal with domestic extremism. The crackdown and subsequent arrests included Mel Broughton (10 years), Greg Avery (9 years) and Kevin Kjonaas (6 years). Suddenly young activists were deprived of experienced mentors and many AV activists moved into other related movements. For example, Amanda King, a British protester who was previously involved in the campaign against Oxford University and the Newchurch guinea pig campaign, was most recently involved in protesting against the UK Government’s proposed badger cull. Alongside her were veteran hunt saboteurs and campaigners who had protested against HLS and Hillgrove Cat Farm, UK.

AV extremism fell steadily from around 2005, which was likely due to a number of factors. NETCU focused heavily on animal rights extremism, with judges handing down harsher sentences. Pro‐research communication was also increasing with the Coalition for Medical Progress and the Science Media Centre both founded in 2002, and the Pro‐Test movement was gaining widespread media and public support. Finally, the public condemnation that followed high profile incidents, such as the grave‐robbing of Gladys Hammond, made animal rights a less attractive issue for young activists.

While extremism in the UK and USA has fallen to an all‐time low, there are signs that activism is on the rise in other countries. In particular, activists from across Europe are targeting Italian pharmaceutical companies, universities and breeders in a sustained campaign that may pose a serious threat to research in Italy. In the past 2 years, activists have broken into a beagle breeding facility at Green Hill, “liberating” dozens of dogs; blockaded a shipment of beagles to the pharmaceutical company Menarini until the dogs were given to activists; and broken into the University of Milan, where they mixed up the animals’ records and seized approximately 100 animals. Fortunately, a vigorous response is already underway, with the newly formed Pro‐Test Italia attracting hundreds of scientists to rallies in Milan and Rome. Nonetheless, such strong responses are few and far between—after a Brazilian research facility recently shut down after activists raided it, taking almost 200 dogs, there was only minimal response from the scientific community.

“In particular, activists from across Europe are targeting Italian pharmaceutical companies, universities and breeders in a sustained campaign”

Back in the UK, online campaigns against universities seem to be increasing in number and magnitude, while a multi‐faceted campaign by many AVGs and AVOs to prevent airlines transporting primates has left only a few willing to do so. In January 2012, the last of the ferry companies transporting laboratory animals across the English Channel stopped its service as a result of pressure from AV groups.

So what should we be doing now? Thanks to the efforts of pro‐advocacy groups and the outreach activities of many research institutions and scientists, there have been positive developments in how we discuss the use of animals in research. Furthermore, as many extremists in the UK and USA are in jail, or are recently released and under control orders that ban them from being involved in AV activism, there is little danger of extremism.

Scientists must spend more time explaining their work to the public, why animals are vital to biomedical research and the measures taken to minimise their suffering in laboratories. Social networks and online outlets, such as university departmental webpages, science blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, all offer ways for scientists to interact with the public—particularly younger audiences. Understanding Animal Research’s (UAR) “Science Action Network” points the scientific community towards articles that misrepresent animal research and posts links to Twitter with the hashtag #ARnonsense. Scientists who search for this hashtag, or who follow @ARnonsenseRT, can then go to these articles and leave comments correcting the misinformation within them. The result is that members of the public who come across these articles can quickly reassess their content.

Younger scientists often find it the hardest to speak up. Nevertheless, their voices are important. Start small; conversations with friends and family play a crucial part in “normalising” the issue of animal research, as well as practising science communication skills. Simple things like sharing animal research stories on Twitter or making mention of animal research on Facebook provide another avenue for discussion. A step further would be to write for a blog, student or local newspaper. Speaking of Research started a series of guest posts entitled “Speaking of Your Research” to provide scientists and animal care staff with a safe environment to discuss why they use animals. With science becoming more popular with the general public, there has never been a better time to discuss this issue (note the 12+ million likes for the “I Fucking Love Science” Facebook page).

“… scientists still go surprisingly quiet about animal research.”

While researchers directly involved in animal research are in the best position to talk about what they do, they are also open to accusations of bias. Therefore, it is important that the rest of the scientific community helps to explain why such research is carried out. All scientists should promote the value of both basic and applied science in all fields. I know plenty of researchers who have defended the Rothamsted Research Institute’s genetically modified wheat trials in the UK in the face of anti‐GM protests in May 2012. Yet, scientists still go surprisingly quiet about animal research.

Institutions must also speak louder. It was reassuring, for instance, that the Bremen University in Germany legally and financially supported researcher Andreas Kreiter against attempts to shut down his research on macaque monkeys. Yet, in my view, too many research institutions, particularly in the USA, lack clear and open statements about the existence and importance of their animal research programmes. This is especially true of those organisations which fund, but do not carry out, animal research, such as medical research charities. The more details provided, along with pictures and videos, the better; otherwise, activists will be happy to supply their own, unrepresentative images. Organisations also need to work with local communities, inviting residents and journalists to tour facilities and sending scientists to schools in the local area. This can help minimise the resources (of local supporters) available to a new AV campaign (Fig 1). Importantly, such actions must happen in the good times, or else risk being perceived as a cheap public relations stunt.

“The more details provided, along with pictures and videos, the better; otherwise, activists will be happy to supply their own, unrepresentative images”

While we still have a way to go, the UK continues to provide the best practice in pro‐research advocacy. Newspapers regularly report on interesting or promising research involving animals, thereby normalising the animal research issue. Universities and other institutions have driven this change by mentioning the animals used in research more regularly. Nonetheless, the long wait between initial studies in animals and the launch of new treatments means that the public can often lose sight of the link between the two. Those working on clinical research have a duty to recognise the contribution of animals when discussing new therapies with the press. In 2012, more than 40 institutions and organisations signed the Declaration on Openness, pledging to do more to communicate the important research they carry out. This is a positive step that could be emulated in other countries.

Medical research involving animals is important to all of us, and we all have a duty to provide the accurate information the public needs to make up their mind.


  1. Pew Research (2009) Scientific Achievements Less Prominent Than a Decade Ago. Washington, DC: The Pew Research Center. http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-other-issues/
  2. Ipsos Mori (2012) Views on the Use of Animals in Research. London, UK: Ipsos Mori. http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/innovation/docs/I/ipsos-mori-views-on-use-of-animals-in-scientific-research-September-2012
  3. <em>McCarthy JD, Zald Z N (1977) Resource mobilization and social movements: a partial theory. Am J Sociol 82: 12121241 CrossRef
  4. Illman J (2008) Animal Research in Medicine: 100 years of Politics, Protests and Progress. The Story of the Research Defence Society. London: Research Defence Society
  5. Singer P (1985) The Animal Liberation Movement: its Philosophy, its Achievements, and its Future. Nottingham: Russell Press
  6. Cook J (2006) Thugs for puppies. Salon, Feb 7. www.salon.com/2006/02/07/thugs_puppies/

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/embr.201438837

The Structure and Motivations of Antivivisection Organizations and Activists

I recently published a paper in EMBO reports (available free online for a few more weeks) which (among other things) looked at the factors influencing the animal rights movement, causing it to wax and wane over time.

Firstly I separated animal rights groups into two general types using the term “antivivisection” to separate the “anti-research” movement from other animal rights issues). The two types are:

  • Antivivisection Organizations (AVOs) are large, established groups who generally pay their staff, like PETA, HSUS or the BUAV.
  • Antivivisection Groups (AVGs) are smaller, more informal groupings of like-minded activists, who might be compensated for time put in, but are unlikely to be salaried. Examples would be Negotiation is Ov er (NIO), For Life on Earth or SHAC.

I used Resource Mobilization Theory (RMT; McCarthy & Zald, 1977), as an approach to understanding the antivivisection social movement. Essentially it suggests that success of a new social movement is determined by the resources available to it – these include knowledge, money, media, labor, solidarity and legitimacy.

It is people that provide resources to antivivisection groups and organizations – for example by offering their time, providing a donation, or lending a group legitimacy by speaking favorably of it to friends. These people are the central pillar of RMT and are split into three separate types:

  • Non-Supporters – People do not actively support the antivivisection movement because they either disagree with it, are unaware of it, or have other priorities competing their time and money.
  • Supporters – People who might donate to an AVG/AVO, attend one of their demos, or otherwise support the movement, but are not employed or core activists within the movement.
  • Activists – People who are either paid by an AVO, or spending a great deal of time working with an AVO.

The diagram below (from the EMBO article), outlines the resources which move between supporters/activists and AVO/AVGs, and some of the influencing factors which cause individuals to move into and out of the antivivisection movement.

Image Credit Tom Holder, Originally Published in EMBO Reports DOI: 10.1002/embr.201438837

Image Credit Tom Holder, Originally Published in EMBO Reports DOI: 10.1002/embr.201438837

Figure 1. A model of the antivivisection movement

The blue dashed arrows indicate the movement of people within the antivivisection movement: a person might read the website of an AVG and decide to change from non‐supporter (either someone who disagrees with the AV views or has not formed an opinion either way) to a supporter, donating money or spending their time and effort signing petitions. The green arrows denote the movement of resources (e.g. time and money), though it should be noted that these are not exhaustive lists of resources. In return for their time and effort, that person might get a “feel‐good buzz” about helping animals, or from the acceptance of their peers. Later, they might decide to get more involved. This change is the movement from supporter to activist (though the divisions are not clear‐cut). The activist still feels good about what he or she is doing—possibly with a greater social acceptance from their newfound colleagues—and might also find himself or herself remunerated. Note that by giving time or money to any one AVG/AVO, they are choosing not to give those resources to another, so there is a natural competition between these AVGs/AVOs. Years later, the person might find they have less time and will drop back to supporter status, or might find that the massive publicity surrounding an associated movement draws their time and effort (turquoise dashed arrows), such that they stop their involvement with the original AV movement. Such associated movements need not have any relation to animal rights, but the more similar they are to the AV movement, the more competition there will be. Legitimacy is an important resource that both supporters and activists provide. An animal rights group that can only muster 20 supporters at important demonstrations will eventually find its supporters moving to competing AVG/AVOs. When the entire antivivisection movement comes under negative media spotlight, or as laws or police activities make certain activities more difficult, many supporters may move to other associated movements, and many activists may choose to put their expertise into other areas.

Animal rights activism is often seen as some sort of fringe movement for young, impressionable idealists, yet in reality it bears a closer resemblance to the professional not-for-profit and charity sectors. As a cause comes under the media spotlight a charity sector can find new resources and expand, with smaller offshoots being formed around the issue, when the media spotlight disappears many of those supporting the cause also move to pastures new. The same is true for the animal rights movement.

Animal rights activism is a profession for many involved – selling outrage to a public who lack many of the pertinent facts. Activists move between AVO or AVGs just like charity campaigners move between organisations. Wendy Higgins, Communications Director at Humane Society International has had similar roles at the Dr Hadwen Trust and the British Union for the Abolition for Vivisection. Luke Steele has both founded and joined a multitude of AVGs, most recently the Anti-Vivisection Coalition. The Animal Liberation Press Office has had a whole host of different spokespeople as activists rise and fall.

These activists provide the AVOs and AVGs with a variety of resources including:

  • Manpower – Both to run the campaigns and hold out the collection tin at the end
  • Legitimacy – Large numbers of activists give organisations legitimacy in the eyes of both the public and the media, and respected activists provide legitimacy within the movement
  • Experience – Established activists know the activists, the media contacts and the techniques necessary to run effective campaigns.

In return they may receive financial remuneration or a salary, they also gain from the community to which they now belong, and respect among many of their peers.

However, just as activists may flow into a movement, so may they flow out. In the UK, while animal rights activism and extremism was at a high, the UK government founded the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) to tackle animal rights extremism. The following year the Serious Organised Crime and Prevention Act (SOCPA, 2005) was approved by parliament, which introduced longer sentences for those conspiring to blackmail research institutions, or interfering with contracts relating to animal research. Injunctions were brought by research facilities against animal rights groups. In 2007, Operation Achilles made 32 arrests across Europe of key animal rights extremists. The result was that many leaders of the antivivisection movement were locked up, depriving a generation of activists of the role models who might persuade them to join the movement. It also made the antivivisection movement a more risky one to join, with fewer opportunities for “successes” (e.g. shutting a lab down).

Join a movement

For our young impressionable potential-activist, deciding which cause to throw his time and effort behind, he or she may consider the following questions to themselves about each one. While it may be argued that the AV movement had a high profile in the early-mid 2000s, it was for the wrong reason, with people likely to bring up images of graverobbing and arson attacks. The increasing resilience of the animal research community was also making victories harder to come by (reducing the chance of success), and the police spotlight was also making it less attractive to new potential recruits. Instead our young activist may consider their time better spent challenging rising inequality (e.g. Occupy movements) or fighting against government badger culls (indeed many former antivivisection activists have recently moved to this issue). Diagrammatically (see first image) this can be seen as the teal arrows from supporters and activists to the supporting movements.

The professionalism of the AV movement means that competition is rife. AVOs compete to make the biggest stories or infiltrations. This means there is a pressure to make stories more dramatic (and exaggerated) than the previous one. The competition also causes successful tactics to be quickly imitated between organisations. A recent tactic by the Anti-Vivisection Coalition in the UK has been to send a Freedom of Information request (FOI) to universities asking for the number of animals they use in research, and then turning the answer into a press release for local news outlets (e.g. Brighton and Durham). This success quickly caused other animal rights groups to copy, with Animal Aid(vs University of Surrey) and the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) (vs University of Birmingham) to copy this strategy.

The money they are competing for is not small. A quick look at the BUAV’s accounts showed they spent around £200,000 in both 2012 and 2013 on “Investigations” as they attempt to create the biggest stories. The money involved is not small, the three largest AV organsiations in the UK had combined incomes exceeding £5 million and extremist AVG, SHAC, collected over £1 million from street collection tins. Much of the SHAC money ended up supporting full-time activist leaders who were not being salaried by tax-registered official organisations. As such, competition for this cash may be the reason behind some extremism as the pressure to become a leader – willing to risk all for the cause – was the difference between eating well or not at all.

This Resource Mobilisation Theory model of animal rights activism only touches the surface of the complexity of this movement. But hopefully helps to explain some of the activities of those within it. To discover more, please read the original article in EMBO Reports (DOI: 10.1002/embr.201438837).

Tom Holder

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.

This House Does Not Believe Animal Research is a Moral Hazard

A lively debate at the Trinity College Dublin Philosophical Society on Thursday rejected the motion that “This House Believes that Animal Testing is a Moral Hazard”.

Speaking of Research founder, Tom Holder, joined three students in explaining both the moral and scientific case for the continued use of animals in medical research. In opposition was the Director of Antidote Europe, Andre Menache, the Campaign Director of the Animal Rights Action Network, John Carmody, and two student speakers.


Speakers (L->R by row): Rachel Graham (s), Liam Hunt (s), Andre Menache, Tom Holder, John Carmody, Cormac Henehan (s), Ben Butler (s) and Claire Kelly (s) and Lorcan Clarke (President of The Philosophical Society). (s) denotes TCD student.

The debate was lively, with most students choosing to focus on the philosophical angle, developing and destroying arguments for and against animal rights, human contractualism and utilitarianism. Dr. Menache chose to focus on scientific issues, including TGN1412 and looking at recent developments in replacement heart valves. John Carmody expressed the view that students were a victim of society if they supported animal research, and suggested that animal rights was an inevitability. Tom Holder gave a well received speech that pointed to the past successes of animal research and explained the many levels of protection that animals in labs are afforded. He noted that Stage I clinical trial disasters such as TGN1412 were so rare because of animal safety tests, as well as supporting the advances in synthetic heart valves – pointing out that for many years there was no non-animal replacement  available. Holder wrapped by concluding that animal research was “not a moral hazard but a moral imperative“.

When the time to vote came, the nays took two-thirds of the chamber, out voting the ayes two to one. This house did not believe that animal research was a moral hazard.

How to Build an Action Network for Science

Across the world individuals and organisations misrepresent science for their own end. Such misinformation has been seen in the MMR vaccine-autism debate, the questions over the GM foods, and the causes and effects of climate change. More recently, a confused Republican Senate Nominee, Todd Akin, claimed that “the female body has ways to try and shut down” pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape”. This misinformation is as rampant in the debate over animal research as it is over many other scientific areas already mentioned. Speaking of Research, as well as a host of others scientific organisations, have worked hard to debunk the huge amount of disinformation that is spread by animal rights groups.

There are broadly three ways in which disinformation propagates through the media – authorities, celebrities and public weight.

Authority involves bringing a respected authority to bear on the issue. Unfortunately for the animal rights lobby, their figures of authority – the few doctors who are against animal research – have been roundly discredited. The views of figures such as Dr. Menache, Dr. Greek and Dr. Vlasak have been overwhelmed by the medical community – In 2006 a survey of General Practitioners in Britain found that 93% agreed that “animal experiments have made an important contribution to the many advances in medicine”. Similarly high support can be found around the world by the medical and scientific community.

Nonetheless, it is important that those in a position to speak with authority on animal research do so. There are many stories in the newspapers which lack the voice of a scientist directly involved in such research. Universities and other research institutions must know that

Prof. David Jentsch is one those scientists who is unafraid to speak out about his work and the work of researchers like him

Celebrities often jump on what they see as a popular bandwagon in their support for the animal rights movement. What is more concerning is that many media outlets give more time to the views of these celebrities than to the scientists who would correct them. When the British media caught onto a story about child-blindness research on kittens at Cardiff University, it was the comedian Ricky Gervais who led the voices of unreason. Now I’m more than willing to listen to Gervais tell me about the current state of British stand up, or how to write a sitcom, but I am not interested in his views on which scientific methods for carrying out biomedical research are or are not a thing of the past. PeTA have been effective at bringing celebrities on board to their campaign against animal research and it is about high time that the public starts giving those celebrities some flak for it.

Next time you see Ricky Gervais, or any other celebrity, tweet something which condemns lifesaving biomedical research, tweet back a correction. Better still, get friends to tweet back. Declare a call to arms to correct the misinformation about science wherever it is. If done effectively, with numbers, we will hopefully see less celebrities keen to mouth off about something they know little about.

Public Weight is the mass of people who can be mobilised quickly to back a campaign or story. When groups like PeTA target an airline or ferry company that transports animals to research facilities, they can galvanise their followers to send thousands of emails and phone calls to these companies – many of whom have bowed under pressure. Animal rights groups can quickly fill up petitions, send thousands of emails to research institutions, weigh in on polls and fill up the comment sections of news articles with their misinformation.

The pro-research organisations need to be able to act similarly fast. By communicating stories, and alerting people to animal rights misinformation it is important that we bring the weight of scientists into discussions on the radio, in the newspapers and across the internet. Similarly, we need to get this same body of people to support the good work done by researchers – from sharing and “liking” pro-research stories, to adding your voice to discussions in the news and pointing out the role of animals, often missing from the headlines.


Tom Holder

Amblyopia, kittens and BUAV’s deception

Normal vision relies on healthy eyes, retinas, and their proper wiring of the brain structures that process visual information.  Light which enters the eye is sensed by photoreceptors on the retina.  The information is then transmitted via the optic nerve to the lateral geniculate nucleus and from there to the first stage of cortical visual processing, the primary visual cortex.

Amblyopia refers to the loss or reduction of vision from one eye because it is improperly wired to the brain structures that process visual information.  Even an eye with normal optics and retina may be weakly or incorrectly connected to the brain, resulting in substantial vision loss from that eye.

What causes amblyopia?  Frontal- eyed animals combine the images of the two eyes into a single image.  The process also yields the percept of depth — estimates of the distance of objects from the observer.  When then the two eyes receive very different scenes that cannot be fused into a single one, the brain opts to ignore information from one of the eyes.  This can happen when the eyes are misaligned and pointing in different directions (strabismus), or when the one eye is much more nearsighted, farsighted, or astigmatic compared to the other.

About 3% of children are affected by the condition and, unless it is treated during a period of high plasticity in the brain that may allow external factors to help the brain rewire, called the critical period, the loss of vision might be permanent as the adult visual system becomes hardwired. In other words, if we do not treat them amblyopic patients would be effectively blind from the input of the affected eye.

It is important to correct amblyopia for the simple reason that we are born with only two eyes.  Starting your life with only one good eye means your likelihood of going blind during your lifetime is much higher. Thanks to advances in medical research, we are living 25 years more than our grandparents; thus it makes sense to ensure our children start their lives with a pair of healthy eyes.

Animal rights activists argue that because blindness is not a life-threatening disease using animals in this type of research is not justified.  I concede blindness is not life threatening, but I ask you to participate in the following exercise — blindfold yourself for just one week and try to go about your daily activities — helping the kids to school, getting to and from work, shopping at the supermarket, doing the laundry, cooking, washing the dishes, assisting your children with homework, and so on.  Please return to the comments section of this blog and share with us what you have learned about blindness and the suffering it can cause. This is the suffering the research is intended to prevent and alleviate.

Some of these points were well expressed by a Cardiff University statement in response to the Mirror’s  negative coverage of these experiments which included an on-line poll asking readers to participate. The Mirror article elicited the response of scientific blogger PZ Myers who tried once more to explain the true reasons for such experiments and asked scientists to make their voices heard in the poll.  The Mirror, apparently disliking the trends in the results, responded with a re-poll. Aside from the obvious scientific invalidity of such internet polls, it is evident from the comments in the article that those who voted against such experiments fail to understand the impact of severe vision loss on quality of life and the methods of the research.  While they appear ready to rule out the use of animals in sight-saving research, the same population appears to think differently when it comes to ruling animals out of their dinner plates.

So let me explain again how animals are involved in these studies. To study the early wiring of the brain scientists have used frontal-eyed mammals that have an early visual cortex organized similarly to that of humans.  Kittens have historically been used in many of these developmental experiments because they have frontal eyes and binocular vision, and their visual cortex expresses ocular dominance columns as other higher mammals and humans do.  Such “columns” represent the amount of cortical territory that each eye takes during development which changes if one eye is weakened. Animal work has shown how different rearing conditions influence the balance the input of the eyes into the cortex, the timescales involved, and the effects of multiple reverse occlusion procedures on visual acuity.  Mice also have a small area of binocular vision where the cortex receives inputs from the two eyes and exhibit similar plastic changes. The study of the molecular pathways and events that lead to the opening and closing of the critical period are now being studied almost entirely in mice.

Finally, studying the normal wiring of the brain during development has potential benefits for many other areas of medicine.  Amblyopia serves as a general model of a developmental disorder of brain wiring. Understanding the factors that control the opening and closing of the critical is key not only for vision but other diseases. Specifically, if we understood the molecular events that open and close the critical period we could potentially learn how to open such a window of plasticity in the adult.  This would allow us not only to treat amblyopia in the adult, but also to enhance neural repair in many conditions that involve damage to neural tissue, such as in stroke.

We do not currently have non-invasive methods that would allow us to study normal and abnormal brain wiring during development in humans.  Animal models allow us to understand the molecular and cellular events that take place during development.  The experiments involve artificial closure of one eye and recording form brain structures while animals are fully anesthetized. The anesthetic plane is monitored continuously by measuring the heart rate, electrocardiogram, end-tidal CO2, and core temperature.  Such monitoring parallels and even exceeds what one may see in human surgeries. The animals are euthanized at the end of the procedure with an overdose of anesthetics — the same way your pet may be euthanized by your veterinarian.

It is outrageous, ignorant or simply deceptive for Nick Palmer of the BUAV to claim on the BBC during a debate with Tom Holder on the justification for this experiments that “you wake up the animal” during the electrophysiological recording procedures. This is flat wrong. Animals are anesthetized for both the surgical procedures, and continuously during the recordings.  They never regain consciousness as they are euthanized at the end of the experiment.

We all benefit from the medical advances of the past.  Animal research has undeniably contributed to such advances. Opting out of such research without a viable alternative would cause much human and animal suffering.  Inaction needs a moral justification, one that our opponents have yet to spell out on moral and scientific grounds.

Addendum: It’s worth remembering that the Mirror – a British tabloid that is characterised by all the usual vices associated with such publications – has a history of making false allegations against scientists. Back in the 1980’s its Sunday edition was obliged to print a Press Council ruling that an earlier report on amblyopia research performed by the neuroscientist Professor Colin Blakemore was “exaggerated, unbalanced and unfair”. It seems that the Mirror is still living up to its “gutter press” reputation.

The Speaker’s Corner Trust Debate

The Speakers’ Corner Trust  —  a charity organization that promotes free expression, public debate and active citizenship — recently organized a debate on the role of animals in research. Michelle Thew of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) debated Tom Holder of Speaking of Research.

In her opening remarks Ms. Thew compared the non-consensual experimentation on human beings, such as those performed by the Nazis, to the use of animals in medical research.  She stated:

The BUAV strenuously opposes such experiments. The fact that they may advance medical science (as they are much more likely to do than experiments on animals) is no justification. It is simply not fair on the victims.

In other words, the claim is that if experimenting on non-consensual humans is wrong, then it must be wrong to experiment on animals as well.  This is true only if one adheres to the view that there is no morally relevant difference between a mouse and a human.  This is a key difference between our respective ethical positions. We agree that most people believe that all living beings are worthy of moral consideration.  Animal rights activists insist, in addition, that we owe all living beings the same moral consideration as any human.

Tom Holder pointed out some obvious implications of the animal rights view, such as the obvious fact that given such moral equivalence, eating a salmon would be equally wrong as eating your neighbor’s child.  Given the vastly larger number of animals used as food versus those used in medical research one can only wonder why BUAV does not focus its efforts in abolishing animal food rather than trying to eliminate life-saving medical research.  As it turns out, there is no British Union for the Abolition of Animal Food, which only shows the moral confusion and upside-down priorities of animal activists.

Ms. Thew is of the deplorable opinion that scientists use animals in research merely “because we have to power to subjugate them.” To which Tom Holder responded:

We do not research using animals simply because we can. It is the human ability to empathise with others and to have the tools to confront disease by means of scientific research that calls for us to act in the face of so much suffering. It is a moral dilemma that must be confronted.

Animal rights activists like Ms. Thew believe that they have the moral upper hand and that it is those that experiment on animals that offer a moral justification.  Not so. Those that oppose the work must offer an ethical justification for not acting when we can.  As an example, if we can find a therapy for breast cancer using mice, why shouldn’t we?  Is it merely because they assert our moral concern for a mouse ought to be the same as that for a mother dying of cancer and her family?

The truth is that if opponents could make a convincing ethical argument against animal research then this is where the debate would stop.  Humankind would concede the work is unethical and it would stop — as it was the case for slavery.  But because their ethical argument fails, they decide to attack the science instead. Thus, in the second part of the debate Ms. Thew denies the past benefits of the research, deplores the use of animals to understand fundamental biological processes in basic research, declares the existence of alternatives to the work and the reluctance of scientists to use them (never mind that it is scientists that actually develop and promote them), and that many drugs fail in the course of development (as one would expect from the very  nature of scientific work).  In the words of Tom Holder

The BUAV seems to have constructed a grand conspiracy theory according to which pharmaceuticals, governments, scientists and the medical community are all conspiring to suppress the “truth” that animal research doesn’t work. Similarly, the findings of highly respected polling organisations like Gallup and Mori, both of which show the public firmly behind animal research, must be “selective” because they don’t meet BUAV’s expectations.

What’s the reality? Understanding disease is a complex challenge, but there is no denying that animal research has contributed immensely to alleviating the suffering of humans and animals alike.

BUAV’s mission states that their goal is to “create a world where nobody wants or believes we need to experiment on animals.”  We share their goal, but it is scientists who actually work to create a world where there will no longer be a scientific need for the use animals to advance medicine and human health. So please, start supporting our work instead of misleading the public, denying the science, and irresponsibly suggesting that we can suspend the work immediately without grave consequences which include much human and animal suffering.

Benefits of Animal Research, Right Down to the Letter

It’s always exciting, in this day and age, to get a letter that isn’t spam. Even more exciting when the letter is from another continent. And even more when it’s a letter as supportive and insightful as this one (full text below).

Dear Tom Holder:

I am a freshman studying at Orange County High School of the Arts. In my literature class, I recently gave a political speech addressing the benefits of animal research. I understand that your organization strongly encourages animal research. Allow me to thank you for actively supporting the use of animals in biomedical research by inspiring students and scientists to speak out in favor of animal research.

With animal testing, the world’s life expectancy is remarkably high. From the eradication of polio and small pox to breast cancer treatments, animal research has proved to be fundamental to the well being of this species. Viruses, diseases, and illnesses should never get in the way of our country’s success. By means of animal research, we have several vaccines and prescriptions available to the country to prevent these. Conventional wisdom states that animal testing implies animal abuse. But in reality, most scientists build up strong attachments to the animals they use in their experiments. Public misconceptions about alternatives to animal testing remain high, In vitro testing, MRI scanning, computer modeling and micro dosing are al vital, but these aspects of medicine simply compliment animal testing. One cannot purely find a replacement to animal research. Animal research should therefore not only be allowed, it must be strongly encouraged.

Animal research is irreplaceable and crucial to medical progress. Thus, thank you for standing up for science by founding several organizations similar to Speaking of Research. Please continue inspiring others and encouraging students, like me, to speak out for the benefits of animal research.


Momachi Pabrai
(reprinted with permission of author)

I congratulate Momachi for standing up among her colleagues to tell them of the benefits of animal research. Her letter shows that she has clearly thought through this controversial issue. Momachi hits upon the key ideas of why animal research is done. Namely:

  1. It is crucial to medical development; and
  2. It is currently irreplaceable

She includes examples such as the polio vaccine and breast cancer treatments (e.g. Herceptin) to back up her arguments. This is an example of how anyone, no matter what their scientific background, can make the case for animal research.

On behalf of Speaking of Research I wish Momachi all the best in the rest of her freshman year.


Tom Holder