On the video monitor, two small marmosets tree-dwelling South American monkeys with white ear tufts cling tightly to each other, looking terrified. A third writhes in pain, postsurgery, on the floor of its cage; others have raw and bloody head wounds that seem crudely stitched up. The animals appear in a 21-minute exposé called Cutting Edge, shot for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) in one of Cambridge University's neuroscience research labs. The monkeys' brains had been deliberately damaged in experiments meant to simulate the symptoms of stroke and Parkinson's disease. Important research that could help save human lives but at an obvious cost in animal suffering.
Filmed secretly in 2001 and screened at a hearing in Cambridge late last year, Cutting Edge was the most graphic evidence presented at what might otherwise have seemed a mundane bureaucratic event: an appeal to government inspectors of a planning application that had twice been denied by the local council. At issue was Cambridge University's proposed $40 million state-of-the-art primate-research facility a project that is bitterly opposed by animal-rights activists and critically important to the British government, which views scientific research as a top national priority. Although the hearing was meant to consider only prosaic issues such as road traffic and policing, planning inspector Stuart Nixon permitted activists to air their antivivisection arguments.
Nixon eventually recommended that the primate lab should not be built, but Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, under whose office the Planning Inspectorate falls, last month approved it anyway, saying that it would be "strongly in the national interest." Animal-rights groups have vowed to launch a legal appeal, and last week about 30 activists staged a noisy but good-humored demonstration in Cambridge to protest the decision to go ahead with the lab. "We will demonstrate against every brick that goes up," says Sofia Bains, 24, a fitness instructor and animal-rights activist. "Even if the building gets started, it will never get finished."
The Cambridge lab dispute is just the latest front in the animal-rights movement's increasingly sophisticated battle to stop the use of nonhuman primates, dogs, cats, rabbits, rodents and other creatures in scientific and medical research. Without the new lab, its proponents say, the university's world-class neuroscientists will have difficulty staying on the cutting edge of research. But activists fear that this patch of English countryside will soon become the vivisection capital of Europe. Their argument that experimentation on animals is cruel, unethical, irrelevant and unnecessary is certainly debatable, but it is undeniably part of an animal-rights campaign that's gaining strength around Europe.
Britain, the birthplace of the antivivisection movement in the 19th century, leads its Continental European neighbors in politicized compassion toward nonhuman creatures. At one end of the spectrum are traditional animal-welfare organizations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; at the other the sometimes illegal or violent direct actions of entities such as the Animal Liberation Front, which recently paint-bombed the house and car of the director of a chemical company whose parent firm has tested substances on animals.
Though vegetarianism is the biggest issue for animal-rights activists and fur gets a lot of attention because it involves both celebrities and fashion the use of animals in scientific research is acquiring a higher profile in the ethical battle for the hearts and minds of policymakers and public alike. Many within the movement apply relentless pressure to stockholders, suppliers and other business contacts, and some a small substratum believe that a proper response to violence against animals is violence against humans.
Much of their fury has been directed at the occupants of a sprawling, quiet compound that sits behind black iron gates and a fence topped with coiled razor wire near the Cambridgeshire village of Alconbury. Inside the fence, a sign reads: working for a better future. This is Huntingdon Life Sciences, which tests new compounds for the pharmaceutical, agrochemical and biotechnology industries. Defended by many as one of the world's leading scientific companies, HLS is denounced by others as an "animal Auschwitz" for its vivisection work.