The vivisection debate: Animals (More4)

Part of a season of programmes about aspects of animal use in research, this drama/documentary was first broadcast in December 2005. In the fictional story we are introduced to a research scientist involved in animal testing and to an animal rights activist intent on stop him.  The narrative develops from about 1997, when a TV documentary exposed genuine mistreatment of some animals at Britain’s largest animal research facility, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), see 00:16:07 – 00:17:31. Throughout the programme, Animals examines real life actions taken by animal rights activists and incorporates them in the plot of the story. A series of interviews with people who were directly involved in these events is also interspersed, and provides interesting insights into their personal experiences.

The story begins with a technician called ‘Danny’, secretly filming the monkeys in the research laboratory where he works. On the eve of a new cancer drug trial, Danny meets with the head of an animal rights campaign group called ‘Strikeback’. In echoes of the situation at HLS, the group use the media to reveal what is happening, hoping to generate as much public support as possible.  This section (00:13:53 – 00:27:35) outlines the two contrasting arguments for and against animal experimentation. Professor Clive Page (Kings College London) describes the reason why animal testing is essential for drug development, “…without animal testing we would not have drugs that are used everyday”, adding “we don’t do it for joy, we do it because its part of what is required to get information to say this medicine is safe for human beings”.  The founder of ‘SHAC’ (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) opposes this suggestion, and believes that people should fight to have such cruelty stopped. He explains how media exposure causes the public to stop and think about what really is happening in these laboratories, and that when people look at their own pets they can “empathise, they can visualise their animal dying, screaming in agony, because it is being tortured”. This section outlines some of the main ethical issues that surround animal experimentation. It would be useful as a discussion starter since it raises arguments for cost-benefit analysis and also the deontological argument that people are morally attached to animals.

In an attempt to stop the laboratory experimenting on animals, the activists continue with their campaign, by targeting the specialist farms breeding animals for the laboratories. For example, the drama depicts an organised night raid on a kennel to free dogs destined for research (00:32:40 – 00:41:55). John Curtain, a real life activist, describes the feeling he has after such a raid and freeing the animals, “doing a raid is just beautiful, you are achieving everything you have ever set out to do”. Again the programme mirrors real events, as the campaigners evolve ever more extreme action to fulfil their aim, including psychological intimidation, hate mail, posting personal details of people on the internet (00:46:38 – 00:51:28), and economic targeting of financial institutions linked to animal experimentation (00:51:28 – 00:58:10). In both of these sections the drama attempts to illustrate the impact this has on the people who they target, and how organisations have to provide strong pastoral care to help workers through the abuse. 

In the story the animal rights campaign targets the home of a scientist involved in the cancer drug trial (01:08:00 – 01:19:55). The aggressive methods are discussed by the fictional ‘Strikeback’ group, as they openly talk about the use of extreme violence against those involved in vivisection (01:29:10 – end). This generates a moral dilemma for Danny, as he questions whether such tactics are justified for the protection of animals. In the end Danny believes it is a step too far and does not participate.

One of the most profound ethical sections within this programme occurs at the point when the cancer drug trial finishes, and the animals need to be put down so their tissue and organs can be analysed (01:23:55 – 01:29:16). Clive Page gives a personal insight into his thoughts and feeling towards killing an animal, “There is no question that every time you have to kill an animal, its hard… its not something you go ahead and do lightly… you really have to weigh up in your mind is it worth doing?” This account describes a cost-benefit approach; do the means justify the ends? Is the harm to the animal worth it to help sick people? Steve Best a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas, believes “the question is not can the animal reason, the question is not can the animal speak, the question is can they suffer… if they can suffer like us… then they have the right not have suffering inflicted on them”. He goes on to say “the most serious thing that any person, any being can do in their lives is to inflict horror on another living being”. This ethical discussion goes further with comments from Richard North (Institute of Economic Affairs), “I’ve got animals and humans in completely different moral compartments” because, he believes, unlike humans, animals do not have the feeling of dread and therefore such actions are acceptable.

At 120 minutes, it is unlikely you will want students to watch Animals in its entirety.  The sections from 00:13:53 – 00:27:35 and 01:23:55 – 01:29:16 provide excellent discussion starters for a debate regarding experimentation of animals. Each is littered with possible ethical issues, which raise many questions that could be discussed; is animal experimentation justifiable? What evidence is there to support that animal experimentation works? What action can scientists take to reduce animal suffering (Refinement)? How many animals should scientists use in their experiments (Reduction)? Are there other procedures which could be used instead of animals (Replacement)? 

For further information please refer to a report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, ‘The ethics of research using animals’ and the BBC religion and ethics website.

Please note it is important to view all clips before use, as the documentary contains both graphical images and explicit language.

Several visual clips from the interviews in this programme are readily available from this More4 link. There is also a transcript from an online debate held by More4 between John Curtain (animal rights activist) and Simon Festing (head of the Research Defence Society).

Animals was first broadcasted on Monday 12th December 2005, 21:00pm, More4, 120 min (TRILT Identifier: 0055FE83) and repeated on Saturday 17th December 2005, 21:10pm, More4 and Saturday 11th March 2006, 22:15pm, More4.

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