An Animal Rights Activist in Prison

This is a guest post by Mel Broughton, describing his experiences of arrest, trial, and imprisonment during the campaign against the new laboratory at Oxford University. Please also read in this connection the post for 15 January, 2016, ‘In Prison and You Visited Me‘: (


In December 2007 I was arrested and charged with a number of serious offences which included ‘conspiracy to commit arson’.  A determined and controversial campaign had been waged against the building of a new animal research laboratory in Oxford.  I was spokesperson and co-founder of SPEAK, the group which had taken up the fight to stop the Oxford animal lab.  The campaign had found itself at the centre of a media storm and was fighting a High Court injunction bought by the University of Oxford.  In 2004 work had been stopped at the lab site as contractors withdrew after pressure from animal rights activists.  But after an eighteen month suspension work was resumed by anonymous contractors whose workers wore balaclavas, while building materials were delivered in unmarked lorries escorted by plainclothes security men in cars.  A surreal and at times menacing atmosphere descended over Oxford and its animal lab.

It was during this turbulent period that my home was raided and I was taken away. At 5.50 a.m. on 13th December, 2007, my sleep was disturbed by bright blue flashing lights outside my window. There were lots of voices and car doors being slammed. I sat up in bed and Bella, my dog, jumped up from her sleep. The next noise was an ear-splitting crash as the police battering ram went through the front door of the house. In the half-light I became aware of voices in the corridor, and I got up as the door to my room was opened and police officers in riot gear entered my flat. My first thought was for Bella, who was by now in a state of real fear and panic. In the half-light she passed the officers in my room and the growing number filing into the corridor, none of whom made any effort to stop her running out into the road.

My only concern at this point was my dog, the chaos and confusion of the police’s uninvited entry being secondary. One of the officers (a regular at the weekly Oxford protests) started to read from a charge sheet. In the confusion I heard the words “conspiracy”, “arson” and “blackmail”, but they meant little as I could only think of Bella running around outside in a state of panic. I remember saying to the officers, who were hyped up to the point of hysteria, that they should calm down. I was then instructed to get dressed as I was to be transferred to a police station for questioning. At this point I made it clear that I was going nowhere until they called my parents to come over and wait for my dog to return. This they agreed to, sensing that I meant what I said and that my accusation that they had deliberately let my dog out carried some truth.

My hands were cuffed behind my back and I was led out into the still dark of a winter’s morning. I passed officers as they filed into my small flat ready to take it apart. I was led to a waiting police car and saw the vans that had ferried the search teams parked in a line outside.

After a journey through the countryside in the dawn light I arrived at Banbury police station where I was to spend the next two and a half days being questioned.  It was made clear to me by my legal representative that I would be remanded to prison and any bail application at that time would be futile.  The public perception of anti-vivisection campaigners had been distorted by an alliance of police, media and animal research apologists.  It meant that increasingly the only voices listened to were those of vivisectionists.  That, combined with some high-profile arrests (some of which were filmed by invited media), pointed to a government-backed attack on the animal rights movement.

I made my appearance in court at Banbury, and after a few legal arguments was remanded.  I was taken to Woodhill prison where I was processed and informed I was a “high-risk” Category A prisoner. I was made to strip for a search and then to put on a Cat A boiler suit to be photographed and then fingerprinted. As a Cat A prisoner I would not be entitled to the usual visiting regime, so I would have to make applications for each potential visitor, who would then be subject to a police check and visit to the potential visitor’s home address. This process took up to three months to complete, and even my family visits were conducted under closed conditions behind a glass screen.

At this point I informed the reception staff that I was a strict ethical vegan.  There is always a level of disdain or hostility to those who do not conform to the norm and at this time veganism was still considered ‘extreme’ and, for the prison, troublesome.  Still it’s important that your ethical principles are recognised, and being vegan is far more than just a lifestyle choice.  Many ‘ordinary’ prisoners are curious or even confused why someone would end up in prison for standing up on behalf of nonhumans.  Most are there because of selfish motivations and unfortunately, as you soon learn, they are also largely poorly educated and from the margins of ‘respectable’ society themselves.  With some invaluable help from outside (Vegan Prisoners Support Group) and my own dogged determination I secured vegan food and toiletries.

My stay at Woodhill was to be marked by some unsettling developments when my cat A status was removed and then two weeks later put back on again.  This sense of unease was to be further confounded when I was moved into the Closed Supervision Unit (C.S.U.), a prison within the prison. The unit was small, consisting of just 24 cells, but there were only 9 prisoners there and, as I later learnt, most of them had allegedly committed politically motivated crimes or the most serious non-political crimes. It was claustrophobic, with cameras on the walls and outside the cells. There were six officers to nine prisoners; there was no exercise yard – just a “cage” where you could stand for twenty minutes per day to get some air. I refused to enter the cage, telling the officers that I had spent my life fighting to keep other animals out of cages and I was not prepared to voluntarily walk into one myself. As such, I was not to get any outside exercise for a year. I suspected the move to the CSU was meant to make me look as ‘mad’ and ‘dangerous’ as possible, and my suspicions were confirmed when I was informed that it was at the request of outside agencies that my cat A status had been reinstated.

I still tried to make the best possible use of time by immersing myself in reading and study.  At first it was difficult to gain any material about animal rights because the censors and prison security deemed it a risk.  It is strange that rights for nonhumans had become such a threat to the status quo, but on reflection it doesn’t take an academic to work it out.  The truth is that animal exploitation is big business and most peoples’ lives are connected to it in some way.  The fact that nonhuman animals can and do suffer in the same ways that we can should cause everyone concern, but it has been a recurring fact in human society that we often suspend our rational thought to replace it with stories and agendas that hide the truth.  Add to this the powerful influence of an institution like Oxford University and I could see why my predicament was as it was.

I was asked often by other prisoners why would I think that animals deserved any consideration, let alone basic rights.  I always took time to explain why I held the views I did and often I would earn their respect, even if they didn’t fully understand.  There are human victims in prison, people with obvious mental health problems who should have received help not captivity.  It only served to strengthen my dislike for the principle ‘might is right’.  I could get a proper sense of what it is to be an animal locked in a cage.  The difference is that I still had some rights, something no nonhuman can rely on to alleviate their torment and abuse.  As time passed I managed to secure more vegan items to supplement my diet and on one occasion delivered a talk to some fellow inmates on veganism.  I also had to prepare for my first trial which meant reading a lot of legal papers and trying to understand some of the extremely complex arguments that were to surface in the science of Low Tandem DNA (LTDna) profiling.

My trips from prison to the courthouse in Oxford were long drawn-out affairs.  As a category A prisoner I had to travel in a prison van on my own.  I was required to wear a green and yellow boiler suit with a large A on the back (and, though it was winter, only prison shorts and a T-shirt underneath).  This again, as I learned from a prison officer, was to heighten the sense of menace at the court and put me in as bad a light as possible.  On my arriving at court, other prisoners were told to move back as I was led to a holding cell whilst cuffed to other officers.  I caught the looks on their faces as if I was someone who at any moment was likely to attack them, and I never got used to that. I was to discover that the police had also requested I be shackled in the courtroom and be accompanied by five prison officers.  The judge refused the last request and said, “He is not a dangerous man. I don’t want to see all those officers in the courtroom”.

I was to endure a total of three trials before I was finally sentenced to 10 years.  After a hung jury at the first trial I was re-tried, and after a guilty verdict at the second trial I appealed my conviction.  I was to win my appeal against the verdict but a ruling that it was a misdirection from the judge in the second trial meant the prosecution could call for a third trial – which they did.  The courtroom had a large screen on which to play selected segments of speeches I had made at demonstrations in Oxford and elsewhere.  It is surprising how cleverly-edited pieces of media put together can produce what amounts to unbridled support for direct action.   It would take too much time to recount the details of all three trials but it was clear I was to be ‘dealt’ with and the guilty verdict came almost as a release.  I was returned to prison to continue my sentence.

On my release from prison I was to be subject to five years of ‘bespoke’ licence conditions.  Among these conditions were: “vii, Not to contact or associate with anyone currently or formerly associated with the campaign currently or formerly known as SPEAK without prior approval of your supervising officer.” And “viii, Not to contact directly or indirectly any person whom you know or believe to have been charged or convicted of any offence related to animal liberation/rights, without the prior approval of your supervising officer.”  This amounted to social isolation for someone whose friends and colleagues were drawn from the animal rights movement.  Each visit to see my supervising officer was always prefaced by the question “Have you seen anyone?”  The number of people who attended SPEAK protests or were supporters was in the thousands; how could I possibly know who they all were?  I dealt with the situation by arguing back at every opportunity, but it’s difficult to argue with the faceless agencies who design these conditions.  The point is you are meant to feel helpless, and in such circumstances to become disillusioned.  But for me that was never going to happen; it only served to make me more determined to return to the animal rights movement the moment my conditions lapsed.

The Oxford animal lab had been opened in 2008, and in 2017 a total of 236,429 animals including mice, rats, ferrets, guinea pigs, nonhuman primates, pigs, jungle fowl, and zebra fish suffered and died there.  SPEAK is still there; for fourteen years the weekly protests have been a presence, a reminder to Oxford University that we have not forgotten those nonhuman victims.  The university blandly states that medical progress is not possible without animal experimentation. But this is the 21st century; science, like all human endeavours, moves on or should.  And what of our understanding of the complex nature and cognitive capacities of nonhuman animals?  Oxford University ignores and loftily dismisses the suffering it creates inside its animal lab, but it will not be allowed to silence us.


Mel Broughton






Not Coming Away Clean

A report entitled ‘Normalizing the Unthinkable: the Ethics of Using Animals in Research’, and published online by the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, was the subject of the third post in this blog (1 August 2015, ‘The Complete Vivisector’). The report has now been published in book form, edited by Andrew and Clair Linzey. I’ve re-read it, and I find it as good as it seemed the first time: a complete survey (though tending to concentrate on the situation in the U.K.), thoroughly lucid and readable, surely the best all-round account of this unpleasant subject there is.

The book version adds, to the original report, a new general introduction and some supplementary essays (rather a miscellany, I feel) by scholars and activists, which together account for about as many pages as the report itself. The introduction is headed ‘Oxford: the Home of Controversy about Animals’. It’s a fair title: not a glorious one, perhaps, since Oxford has first of all been the ‘home’ of vivisection, and the controversy has largely followed on from that; but an honourable title, because it shows that there have always been actively high-principled people, in the University and beyond, to object to this betrayal of what the University might stand for, or at least to insist publicly that there are profound moral questions involved. This last is the very least of what ought to be publicly acknowledged – and it was indeed acknowledged during the nineteenth-century phase of the controversy by the leader of medical science at Oxford, Professor Henry Acland, not otherwise an opponent of vivisection. He saw in it, with explicit unease, “a new phase of modern thought … part of a great moral and intellectual question bearing on the very foundation of human society”.

His close friend John Ruskin was more absolute on the subject, of course. There has always been some doubt about why Ruskin resigned his chair in Fine Art. He was certainly ailing at the time, and had possibly become unfit for the hard work of lecturing as he practised it (i.e. with great earnestness and theatricality). However, he himself did not believe so, and he unhesitatingly gave as his reason the University’s decision in 1885 to fund a laboratory where vivisection would be used. More than that, he then spoke about his work as professor of Fine Art at the University since 1869, and the work he had been intending to do in the future (for he had “meant to die in my harness there”), in such as way as to say that the laboratory had nullified it all. His whole art project at Oxford University then, which quite apart from his own high ambitions as to its value had become a phenomenon of the University’s intellectual life probably never since matched for excitement and acclamation, he thus expressly made a casualty of this new scientific practice. It was the opposite of a dedication, reflecting his belief that the new laboratory represented the opposite of what a university should teach and be.

The introduction to the new book gives some account of these and other historical protests in Oxford. It touches rather more briefly on the campaign against the very recently built laboratory (oddly dating the campaign at 2006 although even at its full strength it lasted for several years, and it continues today). And the account concludes thus: “The campaign in opposition failed. The new Oxford lab was built.” Well yes, in that particular objective it did fail, just as the 1880s campaign had failed (that lab was built too) – just as, indeed, the book itself may be said to have failed if it doesn’t bring the practice of animal research to an end by the time it goes out of print. But in fact we know that the book’s ideas will spread outward and endure, just as the story of Ruskin and those University convulsions of the 1880s endures. And here is some of what the modern campaign achieved.

Most essentially, the campaign made manifest in modern Oxford what Henry Acland had acknowledged, the moral momentousness of the decision being taken by the University: the decision, that is, to build animal research into its long-term future. When Elizabeth Costello, in J.M.Coetzee’s novel of that name, speaks to a university audience about the slaughterhouses at work in the vicinity, unseen and unacknowledged, she concludes sardonically, “We can do anything, it seems, and come away clean.” This, Oxford University would indeed have liked to do but was prevented from doing. For a time, demonstrations and rallies came to characterize speak-demos-024-300x281the city, made all the more conspicuous by the presence (often grossly over-numerous) of police officers with their alarmist cameras and high-visibility jackets. The University’s ceremonial events in particular were trailed, like a bad conscience, by demonstrators and their banners. And the scenery itself, even without the people, came to be expressive. For a year and more, the new laboratory was halted half-built, an ugly skeleton announcing itself along one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Around it, painted lines marked the limits set by court injunctions as to where protesters might go. Even now, notices of these injunctions are pinned to the trees injunction.JPGoutside the laboratory: not irrelevantly, because the demonstrations continue in that place today, but they’re also important documents, advertising to a multitude of passers-by every day the cause they were aimed at.

With the new awareness of animal research which was thus gifted to the town and University came of course the debate properly due to this subject. It was forced upon the University by activists, but of course it should have been promoted by the University itself, as an intellectual institution preparing to implicate all its thousands of members in a renewed commitment to a practice that some of them must certainly have deplored. (I don’t want to sound naïve by calling the University also a moral or even spiritual institution, although its own motto does claim or solicit divine guidance.) That it did not promote or even facilitate the debate is a reminder of how little the University really does exist as one institution with any coherent aim other than growth and reputational success. Such unitary voice as it has is mainly synthesized by fund-raisers and PR people speaking on its behalf; otherwise it’s really a congeries of discrete subjects, professions, and careers, careful not to tread on each other’s ground. This was already a concern for Ruskin. He hoped to make his own art school a harmonising force, and indeed made himself unpopular with other professors by freely expatiating on their subjects in his own lectures (in fact on “every subject on earth but the subject of his chair”, as one contemporary complained). The progressive atomizing of the university is no doubt largely what prevented its senior membership from playing any collective part in the modern controversy, of the sort it certainly had played, on both sides, in the controversy of the 1880s.

Anyway, the debate did occur, and in many different ways, formal and informal, from televised set-pieces, through talks and seminars, to ‘vocalizations’ (I use the preferred physiologist’s term) of all kinds in the streets. And crucially, the audiences and participants included science students, who were encountering animal ethics for once not just as a possible branch of their professional training – another ‘module’ to pass an exam in – but as a decision of very great consequence to be made about human nature in themselves and in general.

“Where is your moral teaching in science?” So the politician Tony Benn asked the scientist Richard Dawkins (both of them Oxford graduates) during an interview. Repeatedly in the history of vivisection (including human vivisection), sudden light has revealed scientists insouciantly doing what astonishes and scandalizes their lay contemporaries. It’s really how the anti-vivisection movement began in the U.K., when outsiders to the profession were given an unintended view of the contents of the 1873 Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory. The recent news story about testing diesel exhaust on monkeys is another such occasion. Two of the supplementary essays in the Linzey book touch on this question of the morally unschooled science-mind. One of them, ‘Is “Necessity” a Useful Concept in Animal Research Ethics?’, shows how that slippery concept is used by the research community and its apologists as a sort of alibi or substitute for real ethical attention. The other, Katy Taylor’s excellent study of the utilitarian calculus, ‘Harms versus Benefits’, considers (sceptically) the notion that doing these calculations (in so far as they are done, or even can be), at least gets researchers “to simply consider the ethics of what they are doing.”

It’s a problem which will assume ever more urgency as science grows in scope and authority. Certainly it can’t be solved simply by direct action, but at least for the fourteen years to date of the Oxford campaign, no-one using the University’s science area can have been unaware of the existence of moral values more ambitious than their own or at least than their institution’s. The years of banners, whistles, amplified commentary, crowds, vigils, earnest human attention, have made sure of that.

Yes, direct action may pass into illegality, in a way that lectures and formal debates almost never do. In fact the tactics of the police and of the University’s security service were almost certainly designed to make anything done on behalf of the animal cause outdoors look illegal in itself, or likely to be illegal at any moment. And this is no doubt largely why the introduction to the Linzeys’ book hurries rather briefly over the modern phase of the Oxford controversy; why also, though it kindly mentions VERO (and I hope that VERO has indeed played a worthwhile part in the story), it does not mention by name the group which initiated, orchestrated, and led SPEAK banners at WDAIL.jpgthe most active of the protests throughout, and is still there on the street making the case against vivisection outside the new laboratory: that is, SPEAK, ‘the voice for the rights of animals’.

This blog has already covered the subject of law-breaking (15 January 2016, ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’). I shall only say here that in the anniversary year of the Representation of the People Act 1918, when the suffragettes are being remembered with admiration and gratitude, I don’t hear it said that their criminal offences against property discredited the cause or the women’s reputations. It was said very often at the time, as it is said now about animal rights militancy. Well, let us wait until the animal cause too is won and has become orthodoxy; then we can more confidently decide what we think about the people who took its risks and paid its penalties.


Notes and references:

The Ethical Case against Animal Experiments, edited by Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey, is published by University of Illinois Press, 2018. Quotations are from pp.2 & 149.

The quotation from Henry Acland is part of the evidence he gave to the Royal Commission of 1875-6: see Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, HMSO, 1876, pp.47-8. The Ruskin quotation is from his letter to the Pall Mall Gazette explaining his resignation, reprinted in the Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, George Allen, 1903-12, vol.33, p.lvi. The comment on his lecturing was made by the historian J.R.Green in the Saturday Review in 1870, reprinted in his Oxford Studies, Macmillan, 1901 (p.265).

J.M.Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is quoted from the Vintage edition of 2004, p.80. Chapters 3 and 4 of this novel recount Elizabeth Costello’s experiences as a visiting lecturer speaking about the rights and sufferings of animals. It’s a brilliant and profound piece of writing.

The illustrations show a demonstration in Broad Street (note the tourist bus viewing the principal sights of Oxford), an injunction notice outside the laboratory in South Parks Road (the cameras seen on the left followed me as I took this photograph), and a rally at the Mansfield Road side of the laboratory (this photo by Paul Freestone).

This blog’s review of ‘Normalizing the Unthinkable’ can be read here:

The post about law-breaking, ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’, is here: