Anti-Vivisection Forty Years On: a Conversation with Mel Broughton

Last Thursday there was a demonstration with banners and leaflets outside Oxford University’s animal research laboratory in South Parks Road, as there is every Thursday and has been for many years. Of course Mel Broughton was there, the man who led the campaign against the building of the Oxford lab, and (successfully) against the primate research centre earlier proposed at Cambridge. Mel’s experience of arrest and imprisonment for arson during the Oxford campaign was described in this blog four years ago, shortly after the conclusion of his ten-year sentence. When he was free of his sentence, and had returned to South Parks Road (“I promised myself that as soon as I got off licence I’d come straight back here, and I did.”) and to the animal rights movement in general, it was a scene very much changed from the one he had known. On Thursday, he spoke about the changes and about the present and future of the animal rights movement.

Mel 2

Mel’s own prison sentence, and similarly severe ones passed against a number of other activists, were part of an increasingly resolute intervention on the part of government and police authorities to support animal-research institutions. Almost certainly both Huntingdon Life Sciences and Oxford University’s new laboratory would have been defeated without this intervention. It involved both financial backing and stricter legal and policing controls. Demonstrations and marches, and even those Thursday afternoon vigils, were so conspicuously policed that they had a quasi-criminal appearance. All this had, as Mel says, “a chilling effect” on the movement, as it was intended to do: not just making direct action a much more hazardous option, but also alienating many who would otherwise have given active support at events.

Two developments which should have been beneficial – the rise of social media and the increasing popularity of veganism – have in fact, so Mel believes, rather compounded the problem. In the case of social media, the will to support a cause can too easily be satisfied by online ‘action’:

They go on their smart-phone and they look at a post about a demonstration, and they go ‘O.K.’ and click on it, and that’s it, they think it’s done. The responsibility for everyone to do something themselves, for everyone to act, has been largely taken away. It’s almost like ‘follow us on Twitter, or ‘like’ us, and we’ll do the work for you.

Veganism has, of course, been an excellent thing in itself, in so far as it lessens animal suffering. Mel himself has been vegan for forty years:

I’m all for it. But veganism doesn’t guarantee animal rights. ‘Go vegan!’ they say, but for many animals it makes no difference. Their status remains exactly the same.

Unless veganism is taken on as a necessary implication of the belief that animals have rights to life and freedom, then it’s likely to be a life-style choice, more about the person than about the animals, and therefore to lead nowhere.

That was indeed the view of it taken by Stephen Clark in his remarkable book The Moral Status of Animals (1984). Throughout that book, he insists that veganism, or vegetarianism at the least, is a minimum commitment, a starting-point. He says, “All those who believe that animals are not utterly beyond moral consideration, that they should be spared all avoidable pain, are duty-bound to abstain from meat, and to campaign against vivisection.” You’ll notice the connection of the diet to the campaigning – specifically, campaigning against vivisection. It’s the point Mel Broughton was making, and Mel recalled that vivisection was indeed a crucial interest in the early days of modern animal rights in the 1970s: “Vivisection was the issue which gave birth to the animal rights movement, that and hunt sabbing.” He himself came into the movement in the early 80s, involved in the campaign of that time against animal research at Oxford University. The policy then was “direct action to save lives”, notably the lives of laboratory animals.

These are still Mel’s priorities. During a hunt event three years ago, Mel was ridden down by a huntsman, and very seriously injured; after a long delay, the man is now facing a charge of ‘wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm’. But animals in laboratories remain Mel’s priority: “I do think that vivisection is the darkest crime of all . . . I don’t think anything comes close to the laboratory in terms of complete violation of rights.”

In those earlier days, the research institutions themselves largely relied for their freedom of action on the ignorance of the public. They would close ranks and increase their security after each public scandal. Since then they have learnt to be more sophisticated. In particular they have created the ‘Concordat on Openness’ to advertise, at one and the same time, pride and confidence in their animal research and commitment to doing less of it. Has all the publicity arising from this Concordat – the countless web-pages about animal research, the ‘virtual tours’ of laboratories, the open days and other such initiatives often recounted in this blog – helped to baffle the anti-vivisection movement? Mel Broughton concedes that it “placates people who want to think the animals don’t suffer.” It enables them to think so, by judiciously selecting what’s shown (even the Concordat organizers admit this): “It’s a snapshot, that’s all it is; it’s dishonest.”

More positively, all this publicity, in common with the now elaborate bureaucracy that regulates animal research, is evidence of the effectiveness of all the years of opposition: “You could argue that they were forced to do it because we were exposing them; they had little choice but to do it.” But of course the essential character of vivisection has not changed, and it has come clearly into light again at MBR Acres, the establishment at Wyton near Cambridge that breeds beagle dogs, at the rate of about two thousand a year, for research-use in the UK and beyond. When the American company Marshall Bio-Resources first took over this breeding enterprise from Harlan Interfauna, all the dogs then being kept there were destroyed. This sort of ruthlessness, says Mel, is “the reality of vivisection”.

Mel speaking

Mel Broughton and others started to make MBR Acres the target of attention two years ago. Making visits at night, they placed cameras at the perimeter fence. These cameras recorded the boxing and transporting of the beagles, ugly and sinister images which gained national coverage in the Daily Mirror and other places in April and May of 2021. The small group of activists that had been making regular visits there now swelled in number, some began to stay overnight, and today there’s a permanent Camp Beagle at the gates of the establishment. Mel says that it’s “one of those campaigns that theoretically we could win; they could be closed down.”

So MBR Acres has become the focus for activist anti-vivisection, as Oxford once was. And the ordeal of radical dissent – the confrontations, the policing, the arrests – is renewed there. The company hopes to secure an injunction limiting the scope of the protest, just as Oxford University did. And Mel Broughton is once more the principal name in the injunction: “I find myself in the High Court, going through the whole process again.”

Many individuals have taken their part in the anti-vivisection protests over the forty years since those 1980s protests in Oxford; most have passed through and gone, replaced by others with their own periods of commitment. A very few have been there throughout, and Mel is one of them. He has paid very heavily for his purposefulness and leadership, but he is wholly steadfast:

I’m not defeated, and there’s a lot still to be done. I’m not going to stop. 

Notes and references:

Mel Broughton was speaking on Thursday, 5 May, during one of the weekly demonstrations in Oxford organised by SPEAK campaigns. His account of arrest and life in prison can be read in this blog here:

The Moral Status of Animals, by Stephen R. L. Clark, was published by Oxford University Press in 1984; the quotation is from pp.169-70. This is the most impassioned and uncompromising of the academic accounts of the subject that I have encountered.

The photographs show Mel Broughton in South Parks Road and speaking at an event in London.

On the Trail of an Untruth: the Sequel

A few weeks ago, this blog highlighted a plainly false statement in Oxford University’s online account of animal research (titled ‘Research using animals: an overview’) and traced it to its source: namely, the web-site of the PR organisation called Understanding Animal Research. The statement claimed that the numbers of animals used for research in the UK had nearly halved over the last thirty years, whereas in fact the numbers have risen by about 5% since 1987. They really did go down during the rest of that century, but since then have been going briskly upwards, with occasional modest dips. Perhaps this mis-statement may not seem to matter much; I’ll say something about its significance later on. Meanwhile, here is its latter fate.

Since nothing came of outing it in the blog or, before that, of reporting it to the Public Affairs Office which controls the University’s web-site – making five months or so of conscious misrepresentation – we wrote a letter about it to the University’s independent house journal, the excellent Oxford Magazine. This produced a very civil e-mail from the PAO. There had been some doubt as to what data had been used to substantiate the claim, we were told, and it now seemed right to remove it.

So far so good, but a more general claim was allowed to remain, namely that the number of animals had been “dramatically reduced”. We pointed out that this meant the same thing, though less mathematically. Yes, the Office conceded that the claim “referenced old national figures” (2001 figures to be exact). That phrase too was therefore removed, and a larger revision made of the whole web-page.

So let’s re-visit this page. Some of the old favourites are certainly still there. As before, we’re told three times that “There is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” Perhaps this repetition is thought to have persuasive value, but it rather suggests that the page is pasted together out of contributions from various sources rather than through-composed, a point I’ll come back to. The statement itself is not evidenced, true as it probably is, nor is the more tendentious statement that “Most people believe that in order to achieve medical progress . . . animal use is justified.” In fact the whole page needs foot-noting. Why should we take it all on trust? Academics shouldn’t expect us to.

Then, as before, the point is made at least twice that this research doesn’t only serve humans: “animal research benefits animals too. I’ve always felt that this is a dangerous justification, though one very frequently used. If it’s right, for instance, to make some dogs suffer for the benefit of other dogs, their equals in moral status (whatever we take that status to be), why isn’t it right to make the same rule for humans and their equals (i.e. each other)? But let’s put it the better way round: if it’s wrong to make humans suffer for each other, why isn’t it wrong in the case of the other animal species? Anyway the point is a disingenuous one: we know that these animal beneficiaries are not being helped for their own sakes. They’re mostly farm animals, whose routine dosing with medication is simply a commercial investment, or else they’re pet animals, likewise lent their value by humans. It’s the human valuation, in cash or affection, that does it.

And also still there on the ‘overview’ page, as part of the account of research with non-human primates, is the Escher-like statement, “At the end of its life the animal is humanely killed.” This formulation I used to think was intended as a sort of philosophical conundrum. Now I know it better as a bit of PR, a way of implying, without having to tell a lie, that the monkey has reached its natural term. But of course it is a lie, not just because the killing causes, instead of happily coinciding with, the end of the monkey’s life; the point is that it’s the monkey’s usefulness alive that has ended and prompted the killing, not its life.

Those are some of the familiar details which suggest that nothing essential has changed in the page, or in the habits of mind and practice which it represents. One of the most disturbing features of this ‘overview’ is its preoccupation with the treating of disease, as opposed to prevention or positive health. In fact these latter are not mentioned (except as vaccination). The page begins by stating that “Around half the diseases in the world have no treatment.” Accordingly, animal studies form one part of a “wide range of research techniques” whose aim is to find “cures, vaccines or treatments”. In the course of the text, some of these cures are listed, and their success evidenced. For instance, in the UK alone, “More than 50 million prescriptions are written annually for antibiotics.” (Can this be true?)

No doubt antibiotics, as well as many other such treatments, have been a very great blessing indeed to human health: which of us hasn’t profited from them? But the use of antibiotics – for humans and (notoriously) for animals – has illustrated the flaws in this adversarial model of health. Forty years ago, in the fine pioneering book The Moral Status of Animals (1977), Stephen Clark warned against this “arms race in which our ‘foes’ are always winning . . . Is it not time,” he asked, “to see what other attitudes there might be to the living world?” No doubt it’s unreasonable to look for these “other attitudes” in laboratories where vivisection is used, or in their promotional texts. Still, we can wish they were there. For unfortunately the whole practice of medicine has been conditioned by the militaristic world-view taken by those who service it with science.

Nor is there any suggestion in this ‘overview’ page that change is on the way for the animals. Despite the talk of reduction, replacement, etc., there is no expressed hope or expectation that the cages will ever be empty. In fact it’s noticeable that concessions to the ethical motive tend to appear in subordinate clauses of the type “While we are committed to reducing, replacing and refining animal research . . . “ or “While humans are used extensively in Oxford research . . . ”, the follow-up main clause showing that business must carry on as ever: for instance, “. . . there is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” The last paragraph of all is headed ‘How will humans benefit in future?’ The given answer is that new drugs and medical technologies will continue to be developed from (among other things) “the carefully regulated use of animals for research”. No end in sight, then.

It’s not possible to know how far this ‘overview’ really does represent the thinking in Oxford’s biomedical sciences. The disconcerting thing about that original mis-statement (to return there) is that any one of the scientists using animals at Oxford would have spotted its absurdity at once. That means that not only is this public account of Oxford University’s scientific practice not composed by the practitioners; they don’t even bother to read it. Even their Ethical Review Committee can’t have looked it over. I suppose that contributions have been canvassed from these people, who have come up with material of various kinds (including, no doubt, accurate numbers, but also resounding phrases like that one about the scientific consensus), and these have been patched together with prose connections and fixatives, and some material from such other sources as UAR, into the finished product which we see (but which they don’t feel the need to see). In fact, nobody has really said it or can take responsibility for it. It’s a PR collage, in which we may be seeing things really thought and done, but which cannot be relied upon at any particular point or as a whole.

This indeed has been the gift of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, of which so much has been said in this blog: we can now enjoy the illusion of knowing what’s going on.


Notes and references:

The original post, ‘On the Trail of an Untruth’, can be read here:

‘Research using animals: an overview’ is here:

A very clear chart showing the statistics of animal research since 1945 is provided on p.13 of the Home Office statistical report for 2016:

The Moral Status of Animals by Stephen R. L. Clark was published by Oxford University Press. The quotation is from pp.172-3 of the 1984 paperback edition.