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Huntingdon life sciences hit back

THE UK’S best known –some would say infamous – research centre is hitting back at attacks from animal rights activists and justifying the need for experimentation on Beagles and other animals.

Keen to put the grim memories of a 1997 Channel 4 documentary screened in 1997 which showed an animal technician punching a Beagle that struggled whilst being injected with a chemical serum, HLS Managing Director Brian Cass said: "What that technician did was totally wrong and should never have happened. But it was the only episode of bad treatment in dozens of hours of film. That is not to try to excuse it - behaviour like that can’t be excused. The individual concerned was sacked and we changed many of our policies as the result of a Home Office investigation." But the response of the animal rights protesters was simply disproportionate."

The outgoing Conservative Government suspended HLS’s operating licence whilst a Home Office investigation took place. The licence was renewed by the new Labour Government when HLS met 20 necessary targets outlined after the investigation. Since then, the facility has remained very much in the public eye – and a constant target for animal rights activists.

Cass was beaten with pickaxe handles by a number of masked activists, whilst HLS’s Marketing Director Andrew gay was temporarily blinded when members of the Animal Liberation Front squirted acid into his eyes in front of his children whilst on a Christmas shopping trip in December 2000.

According to Cass, who was interviewed by Alasdair Palmer for a in-depth article for the Sunday Telegraph’s Review paper two weeks ago, between 60 and 70 of the 1,200 staff at the Huntingdon facility have been affected in one way or another by vandalism or abusive telephone calls from activists, who often take the fight to the staff’s homes. Threats have been made against the children of HLS staff on a number of occasions, whilst he facility itself is subject to enormous security, including barbed wire and high fences around the Centre.

"We’d love to be open and accessible," says Cass. "The one lasting effect of the animal rights protesters is that we can’t be. Those walls are their greatest achievement."

The activists’ campaign of intimidation has paid off in many respects. The Royal Bank of Scotland cancelled HLS’s credit facilities and then closed down the company’s account, following threats from activists. The company now banks in the USA.

Management and technicians alike are quick to point out that all animals used in experiments at HLS are treated with care and respect an that if any animal was found to be suffering in a way such as to cause pain, then the experiment would e halted. This cuts no ice with animal rights activists. Wendy Higgins, the Campaign Director for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection says: "To portray the lives of lab animals as anything other than a living hell is not only crass but irresponsible. The truth is that lab animals can endure a catalogue of horrendous cruelty, such as being poisoned, being deprived of food, water or sleep; being deliberately infected with disease; brain-damaged, paralysed; force-fed and surgically mutilated."

Although many of the BUAV’s claims run contrary to legislation governing animal experiments – which forbid cruelty – the public perception that laboratory animals suffer is a strong one and there are greater call for alternatives to animal testing.

Earlier this year, the Government launched the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, which aims to investigate alternatives to animal testing and to cut down the number of animals used each year in research.

According to official Home Office statistics, the number of scientific procedures started in 2002 was just over 2.73 million, a rise of about 110,000 (4.2 per cent) on 2001. Mice, rats and other rodents were used in the majority of procedures - 84 per cent of the total. Most of the remainder used birds (5 per cent of all procedures), and fish (7 per cent). Dogs, cats, horses and non-human primates, afforded special protection by the Act, were collectively used in less than 1 per cent of the procedures. The number of procedures using non-human primates was 3,977, almost identical to 2001, being just nine less than reported in that year.

Other main points in the official Home Office statistics relating to animal research include:

Genetically normal animals were used in 1,763,000 regulated procedures representing 65 per cent of all procedures for 2002 (compared with 67 per cent in 2001 and 84 per cent in 1995).

Genetically modified animals were used in 710,000 regulated procedures representing 26 per cent of all procedures for 2002 (compared with 24 per cent in 2001 and 8 per cent in 1995).

Two thirds of procedures involving genetically modified animals were solely for the purpose of breeding and involved no other regulated procedure.

Species with harmful, but naturally occurring, genetic mutations were used in 260,000 regulated procedures, representing 10 per cent of all procedures for 2002.

Non-toxicological procedures accounted for about 82 per cent of the procedures carried out in 2002, with the main areas of use being for immunological studies and pharmaceutical research and development.

Procedures for toxicological purposes accounted for 18 per cent of all procedures started in 2002. Of these about 61 per cent were for pharmacological safety and efficacy studies.

The majority of toxicological procedures (87 per cent) were performed to conform to regulatory requirements.

About 40 per cent of all procedures used some form of anaesthesia to alleviate the severity of the interventions. For many of the remaining procedures the use of anaesthesia would have increased the animal welfare cost of the procedure.

Over 99 per cent of procedures carried out on animals listed in schedule 2 of the act used animals acquired from designated sources in the United Kingdom.

Biotech boss hits out

The fight back against the animal rights lobby comes from the top. Aisling Burnand is the chief executive of the Bioindustry Association - and she says of herself that she has to be tough.

At 39, and with no scientific background, Burnand has become the voice of one of Britain's most controversial industries, and she's not afraid to criticise anyone who stands in its way.

Home Secretary David Blunkett felt the full force of her indignation late last month, when it emerged that he supported a leading anti-vivisection charity. She stopped short of calling for his resignation - but only just.

It's no wonder she was angry. Together with the biotechnology and pharmaceutical research companies her trade association represents, she has had to deal with the unacceptable face of animal rights for many years. Not every woman with two young children has to discuss with their nanny what might happen if an activist drops a firebomb through their letterbox, but for her it's a very real possibility.

"It's something I have to consider in terms of their safety," she says. "I have sat down and talked to my husband, my wider family and the children's nanny about it. I have to make sure from a security perspective that I am doing as many things as I can do, but if someone wants to find you, they will find you."

The BIA includes among its 350 members Huntingdon Life Sciences, whose managing director Brian Cass was attacked with a baseball bat for testing drugs and chemicals on animals. "I think he's a great leader, and the whole team do a great job in difficult conditions," she says. "It makes me angry that children and women and men in their homes are being threatened, firebombed or having hoax bomb threats sent."

The scientific research organisation that Blunkett is supporting is scarcely on a level with SHAC, the animal rights group believed to be responsible for Mr Cass's injuries. However, it's easy to see why the industry feels betrayed by the Home Secretary's allegiance, especially since he is meant to be responsible for putting in laws to protect them.

Sources close to the Government whisper that even some in the industry thought she had gone a bit far, but there's certainly no question that's she's retracting anything she said.

"I like issues," she says firmly. "Difficult issues." It's just as well really, since as well as the animal testing issue, representing her members involves debates on stem cells, GM food and human cloning - some of the most emotive topics of our time.

The animal rights problem in particular has dogged her for her entire career, ever since she did an HND in Communications and joined a UK division of chemical and pharmaceutical business Rhone Poulenc as a press officer. Her only scientific qualification was O-Level biology.

Even 20 years ago, it appears, there was plenty of misinformation about what animal testing entailed. "People would be calling up and saying 'my cat's gone missing. Have you taken my cat?" she recalls. "I had to tell them to talk to the police, and explain that their cat wouldn't have been any good to us anyway. It's difficult to try and explain that rationally to an old lady who has just lost her pet."

Having looked after dogs, hamsters and a pony as a child, she's far from sanguine about the use of animals in scientific experiments, but as it is mandated by Government before a drug can be tested on humans, she believes we have no choice.

"I would definitely consider myself an animal welfare person. I believe we have got to have respect for animals. My father's a vet and he's a research scientist at the Royal Veterinary College. As a child I grew up going to the research station and so I understood that animals are needed for medical research from a very early age. I hope there'll be a day when they won't be needed, but at the moment I'm a pragmatist. There are no alternatives."

Without Government protection from the animal rights extremists, however, increasing numbers of companies will choose to do their experiments abroad, which will effectively kill Britain's scientific research.