animal experimentation campaigning

The is perhaps no issue facing the animal rights movement that draws out the kind of tension around campaigning and protest the way animal experimentation does. There is a long and rich history of diverse action against various vivisection-related industries. Some of it has been legal, some of it has been decidedly illegal, and what is appropriate ethically and tactically is still hotly debated, perhaps now more than ever.

Legal vs. Illegal:


Protest against vivisection can roughly be broken down into activities that are legal and illegal. That being said there is a widening grey area, which we’ll consider below. For now, let’s consider actions that are obviously legal and obviously illegal.

Legal activism against vivisection might include things such as writing letters to companies, public pressure campaigns against governments to regulate certain practices, undercover investigation done through legal means, and public demonstrations that raise awareness about the issues.  This type of activism is, generally speaking, accessible and open, making room for a broad range of people to participate. These actions and campaigns can result in positive steps forward, both directly (such as the recent news of Allergan ending 95% of its animal tests for Botox) and indirectly (such as the the BUAV’s increasingly successful Cargo Cruelty campaign, pressuring airlines that transport wild-caught and bred monkeys from Asia to other parts of the world for experiments).

Illegal activism such as the actions that fall under the guidelines of the ALF could include things such as breaking and entering into laboratories, destroying equipment, removing animals, and spraypainting slogans onto the walls. Individuals that engage in such actions remain anonymous and work in extreme secrecy. Despite any tactical disagreements or whether one thinks that such actions are good or bad and whether they can result in positive outcomes for individuals or groups of animals (the case of Britches, the stump-tailed macaque comes to mind), without causing physical harm to anyone, the bottom line is such campaigns are against the law. Engaging in activities that cause economic damage to particular players in the industry, using arson, vandalism and other illegal tactics can lead to criminal charges (including domestic terrorism charges) and prison time.

The above examples seem clear, but pro-testing groups have long been interested in confusing one with the other. Blurring the line between what is legal and illegal when it comes to animal advocacy is not a new phenomenon, but the level of confusion and legal threat to activists has increased sharply in recent years. Related to defining the legality or illegality of different protest tactics is the subject of fear and intimidation.


On the Grey Area of “Fear”:

A recent blog post from Discover Magazine takes the issue of fear into some very murky territory indeed. In what seems to be a complete misunderstanding of grammar, syntax, and context, the author of the blog urges PETA to stop it’s billboard campaign against animal testing at Washington University. The simple billboard features a picture of a cat with some kind of apparatus attached to her brain, and contains the text: “If you call it ‘medical research’, you can get away with murder.” The billboard contains no hidden references to perpetrating violence against scientists, and the meaning of the text – to someone who considers vivisection to be cruel and unnecessary – is more than straightforward.


We can elaborate on the text of the billboard using a recent real-life example. Andrew David Thompson, a Michigan State University medical student studying osteopathy, was arrested recently and accused of kidnapping and killing 10 dogs, most of them greyhounds. The motives for his crimes are unclear at present, but he was charged with felony animal cruelty and if convicted could spend more than four years in jail. As a student of osteopathic medicine, however, if he found those same greyhounds in a lab, opened their bodies, studied their bones and killed them when he was done, he would not only be doing something perfectly legal, he would potentially be advancing his training and career. In other words, if you call in medical research, you can get away with murder.

Though this single example might seem inconsequential, when you consider the case of the SHAC 7 – six activists and one corporation who were accused, convicted, and collectively sentenced to over 20 years in US prison, for no more than running a website devoted to shutting down Huntingdon Life Sciences – the intersection of rhetoric, tactics, and language becomes much clearer. SHAC posted information about home demonstrations, gave the fax numbers for Huntingdon offices so that people could send black faxes, and pressured companies and individuals related to HLS to disinvest themselves, and the results were devastating for HLS. Though home demonstrations and protests focused on particular scientists are debated within the movement, their legality was – until that case – fairly clear. Now, if a company related to the vivisection industries feels that it is experiencing fear and intimidation (emotional or financial), the activists can be pursued, and face serious legal repercussions.

So we now find ourselves in a place where these are no longer simple matters of subjective perception of what is “nice” and “not nice.” Organizations and individuals who advocate against vivisection (and other animal industries) now face legal consequences that could damage them for the rest of their lives. While animals in labs face a lifetime of fear, intimidation, pain, and eventual death in the name of science, the same industries and labs can invoke identical concepts as a means of protection from criticism and otherwise legal advocacy.

What do you think? What is appropriate campaigning? When does anti-vivisection activism cross the line?

postscript: As I prepared this article, four lab workers at a product testing lab in formerly based in North Carolina were convicted of felony animal cruelty charges. The workers were convicted for cruelty not related to routine testing, but rather for extra actions such as throwing the animals around the room and trying to remove teeth and claws in particularly crude ways. This is a groundbreaking conviction, the first of its kind, and perhaps a sign that if you call it medical research, you can’t “get away with murder” after all.


Image Source: Karol Orzechowski