On Saturday 27 April, Oxford was the venue for the main gathering in the U.K. to mark World Day for Animals in Laboratories (strictly April 24th). And Oxford certainly is a suitable place in which to remember all those animals. Not only are more animal lives being worked through here than in any other British university; Oxford is, besides (as we find among the various boasts on its web-site), “ranked top in the world for medicine”. It may therefore be regarded as setting an example of big spending in animals to all the rest of the world.
The gathering point for the rally was a fine open field at Oxpens on the western side of the city, adjacent to the railway line and a cut of the River Thames. Oxpens was once a working-class suburb; long since demolished as such, it’s now a miscellaneous and unpretentious area of offices and recreations, including an ice rink. As the place-name suggests, there was until recently a market for the buying and selling of cattle where, on Saturday, impassioned speeches were being made on behalf of their (and our) fellow-creatures. Then, the march set out from Oxpens to make the case for animals visible and audible through the main streets of Oxford, stopping outside the Biomedical Sciences Building to hear, among other speakers, Mel Broughton, hitherto silenced on this subject for ten years by imprisonment and probation. Those years have evidently done nothing to qualify his thinking or his fervour.
This event, the WDAIL, last came to Oxford in 2013, and it’s natural to wonder what changes there have been since then.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the University’s commitment to animal research. The number of ‘procedures’ recorded at Oxford in 2013 was 189,460; the number for 2018 was 219,551, an increase of about 15%. No doubt there was a general increase in scientific activity over the same period, and I don’t know whether animal research has been growing disproportionately or not. In fact the University is growing in all material directions more rapidly now than at any time in its history. Growing ethically also? The question may arouse laughter, either as comically naïve or as meaningless. It should be asked, all the same, and the animals will certainly be somewhere in the answer.
Still speaking of the University’s expansion: even here at unacademic Oxpens, far from the colleges, the shadow of their ambition has fallen. The whole area, either bought up by Nuffield College or forming part of its original endowment, is to be re-developed. Reading the prospectus for the grandiose scheme, we discover that this modestly useful district is “perhaps the most extraordinary undeveloped area of any historic city in the UK”. And those who have noticed that the University’s architectural scruples deteriorate with distance from the collegiate centre of town can happily be reassured. Oxpens is to become “a new vibrant community” (now I remember, the WDAIL rally also was vibrant, but presumably not in the sense, if any, intended here). The design will show “innovation, imagination and vision”, and the result will be one which “adds value . . . to the built environment in our world-class city.”
I quote from this dreary tract of planner’s jargon, ending with that cock-a-doodle brag about Oxford, because it’s signed off by the Warden of Nuffield College, a distinguished academic. I’m sure he didn’t write it; probably he didn’t even like to read it. This sort of publicity is a discipline in itself which does not, we must assume, engage the professional ethics or interest of the academics who commission and pay for it. Its particular relevance here is that publicity like this constitutes one of the most notable changes in the animal-research scene since the WDAIL in 2013. The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research had just been initiated then, and seemed little more than a pompous and clumsy name. Since then a nationwide fog of words has been generated by this PR project, very much in the “world-class city” style, often making it impossible to know whether what one descries through it is real or illusory.
Certainly some increase in real public knowledge has come out of the Concordat. For instance, in 2013 Oxford University was willing to disclose only that there were about 16,000 animals in the new laboratory at any one time, but since there was no indication of the rate at which those animals were used up and replaced by others, that was a nearly meaningless number. The more revealing numbers had to be fished out bit by bit with Freedom of Information requests. Nowadays all the relevant numbers which the University is required by law to submit to the Home Office are also promptly posted on its web-site, together with a great deal of other material of a more or less enlightening kind. Other signatories to the Concordat (121 institutions altogether) are similarly informative.
Such increase in public knowledge must be a good thing. But of course the knowledge is still rationed by those who provide it; even if it’s dependable in itself (and this blog has shown that Oxford’s is not), nothing unpleasant or seriously discreditable is likely to be volunteered. The most notable effect of the new candour is really on the morale of those practising animal research. They may personally prefer to remain as discreet as ever, but their work is continually boosted for them, and a habit of boastfulness and complacency now characterizes the whole scene.
Already in 2015 this can be noticed in a post about that year’s WDAIL published on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research, and titled ‘World Day for Animals in Laboratories – 140 years of animal welfare improvements’. Here we are reminded that we’re “a nation of animal-lovers” (actually the original has “animal lovers” without the hyphen, but I know they didn’t mean that, even though it would have about the same amount of truth in it). Accordingly, we are urged to mark this anniversary (instituted as a focus for anti-vivisection protest) by celebrating “the major milestones which have ensured the UK has some of the best laboratory animal welfare conditions in the world”. These “milestones” are then listed, beginning with the Royal Commission of 1875 and ending with the 2015 ban on testing of household products. Complacently looking backwards, the writer treats all this as a completed history, something for us British, and the animal-research profession in particular, to take pride in. He helpfully forgets that the purpose of milestones (anyway a tellingly obsolete image) was to inform you, not how far you’d got, but how far you yet had to travel to reach your destination. As for the “World” reference, the writer seems to regard that not as a plea for all the animals suffering in laboratories, including the many millions enjoying none of the protections mentioned, but as introducing an element of international competition in which the U.K., satisfyingly, comes at least equal first. It’s a classic piece of PR management.
The listed “milestones” have, it’s quite true, been valuable improvements. However, most of them were the result of strenuous campaigning from outside the profession, against fierce and indignant resistance from within. Nor were the results ever quite what had been hoped and aimed for; they were always partial successes at best, milestones indeed on a still unfinished journey. What we really learn from this UAR retrospect, therefore, is that eloquent and active opposition to animal research is what causes progress, and that WDAIL, as this opposition’s symbolic or representative annual event, should therefore be as noisy, restless, uncompromising, and future-minded as possible.
And that’s indeed what the 2019 WDAIL in Oxford was, just as it had been in 2013. The speeches, having nothing to hide or disguise, were in plain vehement English. Nobody was there to advance a private or professional interest, or to secure their salary. Three of the speakers had, on the contrary, paid heavily for their part in this sort of campaign with time in prison. It was, in fact, just the sort of communal/political event which the much-missed Tony Benn used to speak about and prize (and attend). “Everything comes from underneath”, he used to say: meaning that it was the collective will and sense of justice of the people, the ‘commons’, that effect change, not the formal agencies, authorities and powers. They, indeed, are what suffer the change and therefore resist it, until resistance becomes futile, when they accept, institute, and take credit for it: we’ve seen it happen. So the familiarity of the scene at Oxpens – the unpolished and miscellaneous crowd, the banners and placards, the shouts, chants and whistles, the dogs, all as they were in 2013 – should be reassuring. It means that progress continues.
Note and references:
Film of the WDAIL speeches can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb42LS3_n_U7hob9qMVnmDQ
The prospectus for Oxpens redevelopment is online here: https://www.bidwells.co.uk/assets/Uploads/oxpens-brochure.pdf
The UAR post about WDAIL 2015 is here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/animal-welfare-alternatives/world-day-for-animals-in-laboratories/
Please read this blog for more about Tony Benn and the “underneath” at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/11/21/tony-benn/
Photographs are by Paul Freestone.