Sunday, 17 April 2011

Scientific Progress or Animal Cruelty?

What comes to mind when I say Oxford University? World-class research? Quaint historic colleges? Privately-educated posh kids? A lack of ethnic diversity?

How about animal rights protests? I wouldn’t have thought of it either, until I happened to walk down South Parks Road on a Thursday afternoon. I was quite surprised to see about ten animal rights campaigners (and a policeman) stood outside the Plant Sciences department, demonstrating against the university’s “cruelty against animals”. I was curious, so stopped to have a talk with them.

They explained the building across the road houses over 150,000 animals that are experimented on each year in the name of scientific research; that healthy primates are subjected to deep-brain stimulation amongst other intrusive and harmful experiments; that the research carried out is to satisfy scientific curiosity that does not necessarily apply to human conditions. I was given a mass of leaflets to back up these claims, including references to published research from the university. Some of it makes pretty horrific reading – e.g. healthy monkeys undergoing invasive brain surgery to intentionally cause brain damage.

The protesters also told me they are are only able to protest for 4 hours on a Thursday afternoon following a high court injunction taken out against them by the university. So why are they perceived as such a nuisance or threat?

The “building across the road” was the controversial £18m Biomedical Sciences building. Only after the protesters told me what happened inside, did I notice the deterrents over the manhole covers and CCTV outside the building. The building was designed to replace numerous animal laboratories around the city, and house all animals used for experiments in this new “world-class” facility.

The opening of the “controversial” Biomedical Sciences building attracted attention from national media outlets such as the Guardian and BBC. It’s perhaps not surprising considering the building’s history. Construction began in 2003, but halted a year later after the building contractor Walter Lilly & Co, pulled out after receiving threats from animal rights groups. Following the injunction against protesters, work resumed a year later, and was completed in late 2008.

The university claims the facility tests new treatments for cancer, leukaemia, heart disease, HIV, arthritis and diabetes. It also says that animals can be used only if experiments with cells or computer models are deemed inappropriate.

Unecessary cruelty or necessary research, the debate will continue.

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