Blog written by Claire Hamlett, a freelance journalist and contributor
Holding up placards and colourful smoke flares, about 25 people (and two supportive dogs) marched through the streets of Oxford on Saturday March 4 to the beat of a drum while chanting phrases such as, “There is no excuse for animal abuse.” They were there to mark the 20th anniversary of SPEAK, a campaign to end animal experimentation. Many are also involved in the Camp Beagle campaign to shut down MBR Acres, the facility in Cambridgeshire which breeds beagle puppies and sells them to labs around the country.
The march ended on South Parks Road outside Oxford University’s Biomedical Sciences Building, which has been the site of protests that have happened every week without fail since 2004 when the building was under construction. Having originated in 2003 as SPEAC (Stop Primate Experiments At Cambridge), the campaigners first succeeded in stopping Cambridge University from building what was supposed to be the biggest primate laboratory in Europe before migrating to Oxford and becoming SPEAK.
“It’s incredible to have that presence outside [the Oxford lab] every week,” said Mikey, who travelled all the way from Dorset to attend Saturday’s demo, “so people know that place exists for a start, and to let them in there know that we’re not going anywhere. We’re always going to be a thorn in the side of the vivisection industry.”
The Oxford lab was built as a new facility to keep all of the animals used by Oxford University researchers in experiments who had previously been kept scattered through different buildings. Due to the protests by SPEAK, work on the lab stopped in 2004 for almost a year and a half, until the university got an injunction against the group to allow work to continue. In the years leading up to its completion in 2008, some animal rights activists escalated their efforts to shut down construction, with the Animal Liberation Front claiming responsibility for placing petrol bombs inside two Oxford colleges and setting fire to a college boathouse.
In connection with these incidents, SPEAK’s co-founder Mel Broughton was charged with possessing explosives (which was overturned) and was later found guilty of conspiracy to commit arson. Meanwhile, SPEAK members continued protests that were described by the prosecutor in Broughton’s case as “protracted and determined” which, while inconvenient and expensive, were nonetheless legal and legitimate.
Since the lab opened, it has since become the site where more animal experiments are carried out than in any other UK institution–207,192 procedures were done there in 2021. Almost all the animals kept in the facility are rodents, mostly mice. Others include fish, frogs, and ferrets, and 0.5% are macaque monkeys. The macaques are used for research into diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and for developing vaccines for HIV and other infectious diseases.
Some macaques used in experiments in the UK are the imported offspring of monkeys who have been caught in the wild in Mauritius–a trade which the UK government has refused to ban. The number of free-living macaques is plummeting as a result of their popularity in animal experimentation.
Oxford justifies its use of animals by saying it only occurs when there is no alternative. But attendees at Saturday’s march dispute this defence. Jane, an original member of SPEAK and long-time animal advocate, who was wearing sandals with the word “vegan” stitched across them, said, “We don’t actually have to do these things at all. If you’ve got a disease or condition–I’ve got multiple sclerosis–you can’t always expect somebody to create a drug for you.” She explained that she occasionally encounters researchers outside the Biomedical Sciences building who will stop to talk and when they ask what they should do if there is no alternative to animals, she tells them, “Then we should just stop doing it … We need to look at the bigger picture. We share this planet with many other creatures, and they all have the right to life.”
Similarly, another attendee, who was dressed in a lab coat splattered with fake blood, said that though she has had cancer she disagrees with animal experimentation. “A lot of people say, what if you’ve got cancer, what if these experiments could save your life, but I completely disagree with that,” she said. “We can use so many different ways rather than experimenting on animals, and I firmly believe that if we did go down those routes then there would be more cures for cancer and other illnesses because we are not mice, we are not rats, we are not monkeys. We’re humans, so we need to find updated ways instead of doing this barbaric testing on animals.”
In the UK, the policy on animal experimentation is the “3Rs”, to replace animals, reduce the number involved in experiments, and refine methods to “minimise” suffering. In 2021, the European Parliament voted to create an EU-wide action plan to phase out the use of animals in research, regulatory testing, and education. “There’s overwhelming evidence proving that we do not need to test on animals whatsoever,” said Mikey. “We have non-animal methods … and scientists are moving towards non-animal methods. It’s a slow process unfortunately. But we have to keep going to fight this utter evil.”
For the animals.