The clink of chain link fence. The rustle of dark clothing. The quiet panting of a beagle, sensing that their life is about to change immeasurably for the better. With five dogs spirited away from the animal research industry and given a chance at freedom, this week will go down in history. This was the week everything changed.
This year marks a decade since I stood blinking in the daylight outside HMP Winchester. The first time I had stepped foot outside the prison walls in over two years. My crime was helping coordinate a protest campaign to close Europe’s largest animal research facility, Huntingdon Life Sciences, which had been filmed punching puppies in the face and slicing open live primates without anaesthesia.
The police successfully argued that the campaign was unlawful. Every poison pen letter sent by a member of the public, every act of criminal damage carried out by persons unknown, every window broken by an undercover police officer was somehow the responsibility of my friends and I. For my part, I have always viewed both the campaign and my actions as lawful. We took strenuous precautions to ensure we stayed that way; lengthy disclaimers insisting on legal conduct, ‘parameters of protest’ documents outlining how protestors should conduct themselves, and our website was approved weekly by a barrister.
The real reason my friends and I were sentenced to over 80 years in prison had far more to do with the people we upset than the way we upset them. Unelected Minister for Science Lord Sainsbury was a biotech billionaire who viewed the anti-vivisection movement as a threat to his investments. With him in one ear, and the pharmaceutical industry threatening to move investments out of the UK in the other, Tony Blair’s government took decisive action. Between 2006-2013 they dismantled the British anti-vivisection movement, root and branch. Teenagers were dragged naked from their beds, retirees had thousands of pounds in savings seized, and armour-clad officers broke limbs and set loose animals on sanctuaries.
Amidst a tide of aggressive unfairness, there is one thing which has always felt particularly unjust. Our campaign should never have existed. In 1997, incoming prime minister Tony Blair declared his intention to hold a Royal Commission on the efficacy and ethics of animal research. It was an exciting announcement; the last time anyone had seriously looked at the archaic pseudo-science behind animal research was when Queen Victoria personally questioned its place in society. It was an announcement long fought for, and when New Labour looked to renege on its promise, animal liberation prisoner Barry Horne launched an ultimately fatal hunger strike in a desperate plea. ‘Labour lied, Barry died’ would become our movement’s macabre motto for many years.
Had Labour upheld their promise, the scientific argument against animal research would easily trounce the quackery of animal testing, steeped as it is in religious dogma and long-outdated understandings of comparative biology. Barry Horne would likely be alive, and places like Huntingdon Life Sciences would have been forced to adopt future-facing technologies that hold the key to scientific progress. Millions of animals would have been spared the violence of invasive tests for industrial chemicals, pesticides, drugs, and curiosity.
Of course, the hawkish lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry were fast to get their talons into the new government. Fanciful threats of a recession outweighed scientific reason, and the Royal Commission was swiftly canned. The Home Secretary Caroline Flint admitted the government, ‘Has not commissioned or evaluated any formal research on the efficacy of animal experiments and has no plans to do so.’
And so, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty was formed to close HLS. Those same lobbyists pulled the same strings, and just like New Labour’s pledge, we too found ourselves torn apart and discarded, out of sight and out of mind. With many of us wrongfully languishing in jail, the violent state response all but eradicated the British anti-vivisection movement. But in 2021, another government made another promise. As footage emerged from the UK’s only breeding facility for dogs used in animal research (MBR Acres), Priti Patel announced plans to review the industry.
As before, the promise was swiftly side-lined, with the government confirming that they never intend to explore the scientific value of animal research. Perhaps the only field of ‘science’ exempt from the rigorous scrutiny and testing which moves knowledge, and society, forward.
A smorgasbord of protest groups emerged, all pushing for the same thing as SHAC. An end to facilities such as MBR Acres and an end to animal testing altogether. As it happens, 2022 marks another significant anniversary for me. Twenty years ago, I climbed over the razor wire at MBR Acres (then under different ownership with another name). What I saw haunts me to this day. Dogs living in their own excrement, visibly terrified to see a human face. One was so traumatised she had tried to chew her way out through the metal bars; her teeth destroyed and little more than bloody stumps. I sat with those dogs for two hours, giving them the only affection they would ever feel as tears streamed down my face. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I would be the last person to climb that fence. Yet until this week I was. Early on Monday morning, a group of activists from the Animal Freedom Movement gained entry to MBR Acres and liberated five puppies. Police arrested nine activists on the site, but three chose to hand themselves in later when the puppies were far away and safe.
Their motivation is not to put themselves on trial, but the legitimacy of animal research. Where successive governments have refused to review whether there is any ethical argument for animal testing or whether it even contributes anything meaningful to society, these activists are forcing their hand. To determine whether their daring rescue was unlawful, a jury must first decide whether MBR Acres had any justifiable cause for breeding, imprisoning, and exploiting these dogs in the first place. To do so, MBR must prove the unprovable and risk beginning the final collapse of their entire sordid industry. When faced with overwhelming scientific evidence and the weight of their own conscience, surely no juror could convict these brave pioneers of history. And if a jury decides that animal research has no legitimacy and that any compassionate citizen is justified in rescuing animals from laboratories and their breeders, will we finally get that independent review of the industry? Or will it decide for itself that it’s time to start closing up shop and step into the 21st Century?
However this plays out, the animal research sector has never faced stakes as high as these.