February 25, 2006

Rival Oxford animal lab demos staged

LONDON (Reuters) - Hundreds of rival protesters marched
through Oxford on Saturday to demonstrate for and against the
building of a controversial animal research center at the
city's university.

Animal rights protesters and backers of the controversial
20 million pound ($34.97 million) laboratory, including
students and leading academics, took to the streets to air
their views over what has become a highly-charged issue.

Work on the center was suspended in July 2004 for 16 months
when the building contractor pulled out in the face of a
persistent campaign by animal rights group SPEAK. Construction
eventually resumed late last year.

That came after plans to build a similar laboratory to
carry out tests on monkeys at Cambridge University were
scrapped in 2004 over spiraling security costs.

Britain's largest and oldest animal testing center, in
Huntingdon, nearly collapsed in 2001 when frequent violent
protests caused financiers to pull out.

Some animal rights extremists have also threatened violence
against anyone involved with Oxford University.

The lab's supporters who took part in a march organized by
Pro-Test, formed by students who back tests on animals for
medical research, said they were delighted with the turnout.

"It's so important that these students, our future
researchers and scientists of tomorrow, are allowed to continue
their research to help save lives," Vicky Cowell of Patients'
Voice for Medical Advance told BBC TV.

Eminent scientists from the university also joined the
march after making an openly defiant stand against the often
militant animal rights groups, saying the intimidation which
stops vital medical research had to end.

"The (animal rights groups) have had it all their own way.
They have intimidated people, but the time has come to speak up
and risk it. Who knows what the risk is?" Professor John Stein,
a neurophysiologist, told the Guardian newspaper.

Protesters from SPEAK held a rival demonstration, saying
they welcomed the march by the pro-lab supporters.

"I think it brings questions about animal research out into
the open even more," SPEAK spokeswoman Mel Broughton told BBC
radio. "We have to be very clear -- whatever Pro-Test may or
may not do isn't going to alter what SPEAK does."

Britain is home to some of the world's most vociferous
animal activists and one security expert told Reuters U.S.
authorities regarded the UK as "the Afghanistan of animal
rights extremism."

The government was forced last year to introduce tougher
legislation to target protesters who obstruct experiments and
threaten medical research.

Scientists, pharmaceutical companies and contract research
laboratories have been the target of protests like hate mail,
hoax bombs and even the fire-bombing of scientists' cars.

Thames Valley Police said the majority of protests at
Oxford were peaceful but that 10 people had been arrested since
the start of the year.

SPEAK says it abides by the law but believes it is immoral
to conduct medical experiments on animals in the 21st century.