Politics Science

Animal “rights” terrorism

While I was catching up on some of the stuff that’s happened while I was away, I noticed PZ Myer’s article about animal rights terrorists who intimidated a neurobiologist at UCLA named Dario Ringach to the point where he decided to stop doing research on primates. Then I saw that Jake and Bora also weighed in on the issue (although for the life of me I can’t figure out how on earth Bora came to the conclusion that animal rights is a conservative philosophy at its core–his explanation is tortured, at best). Here’s what happened, as reported in Inside Higher Ed:

Ringach’s name and home phone number are posted on the Primate Freedom Project’s Web site, and colleagues and UCLA officials said that Ringach was harassed by phone — his office phone number is no longer active — and e-mail, as well as through demonstrations in front of his home.


Colleagues suggested that Ringach, who did not return e-mails seeking comment, was spooked by an attack on a colleague. In June, the Animal Liberation Front took credit for trying to put a Molotov cocktail on the doorstep of Lynn Fairbanks, another UCLA researcher who does experimentation on animals. The explosive was accidentally placed on the doorstep of Fairbanks’s elderly neighbor’s house, and did not detonate.

So, basically, what we had was a campaign of intimidation that culminated in a brutal, thuggish, and incompetent attack that was misdirected at an innocent third party, and quite reasonably Ringach was afraid that he was next. Animal rights violence has been much more of a problem in Britain than the U.S., but it would appear that we Yanks are now trying to make up for the shortfall. Although I have never done animal research on anything other than mice, rats, and, in the distant past, rabbits, I still feel the chill when this sort of thing happens. The reason is that animal rights terrorists are absolutists. They fail to see the difference between animal rights and animal welfare. As Brian O’Connor, who routinely covered these issues in his old and now defunct blog Animal Crackers quoted an article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that is no longer available online:

The philosophy of animal rights says, in essence, that animals have the same rights as humans: For example, we don’t keep other humans as slaves, so we shouldn’t keep dogs as pets, and zoos should not confine exotic animals that are threatened with extinction. All medical testing on animals should be banned. Because we don’t kill and eat human beings or use human byproducts for food, we should ban the consumption of all meat and other animal products, including milk and eggs. We don’t use human hides for clothing, so we should not use leather for shoes, fur for coats or even the silk from silk worms for blouses.

Of course, we do do all sorts of medical testing on humans (they’re called Phase I, II, and III clinical trials); there are simply many more limitations on what we can do in such trials, which is as it should be. Be that as it may, as Brian put it, it’s far more than just the above when activists decide to put their philosophy into practice:

There are really two parts to this: there is the “we should not” part — the prohibitions, if you will — that characterize the passive AR lifestyle that dictates what each true believer should not do.

But there is the active, affirmative side, too — the half of the “ideology” that dictates positions people should take on various social issues involving animals, and how those social issues should be approached. The “active” limb of AR has as it’s goal nothing less than radical societal change. For some, the ideology is so clear and the call so compelling that they are moved to violence.

After all, if each life is equally valuable, then morality becomes a simple matter of arithmetic. If by killing a few you can save many, you do it. If “the few” happen to be scientists, and “the many” happen to be animals, then you openly advocate assassination. Each life — that of an animal and that of a human — is equally valuable.

In the AR world, almost anything is justifiable in the name of “the animals” and in pursuit of a cruelty-free world — however cruel any given action might be to an individual human.

Exactly. If one believes that the life of every animal is 100% morally equivalent to the life of any human, then suddenly it seems morally acceptable to threaten, attack, and even kill humans in order to create a “cruelty-free” world. (I wonder if what animal rights activists would do to prevent animals from eating each other out in the wild. Being torn apart by, for instance, lions is a pretty cruel way for an antelope to die.) Based on this dubious moral equivalency, animal rights radicals argue that it is wrong to have animals as pets, wrong to eat meat, and, most relevant to me, wrong to use them in experiments. Any means of stopping this suddenly becomes acceptable–including placing explosives at the doorstep of scientists involved in animal research. And, if the bomb was off target and some uninvolved elderly couple was injured or killed as a result, well, that’s just collateral damage, as one prominent animal rights activist admits (see below).

One of the most despicable people in the animal rights movement, unfortunately, happens to be a fellow surgeon by the name of Jerry Vlasak. He is an incendiary apologist for animal rights violence, and, not surprisingly, he came out of the woodwork to justify this attack:

Jerry Vlasak, a practicing physician, a spokesman for the Animal Liberation Press Office, and a former animal researcher, said that “obviously the roughly 30 non-human primates [Ringach] was killing every year would be ecstatic” with his decision to halt his work. Vlasak said that when he was an animal researcher, he published papers on his work, but didn’t feel that he contributed anything important to society.

I rather suspect that Vlasak might be right about his not contributing anything important to society with his research, but more likely it was not because it was animal research but rather because of the poor quality of the research, given his poor reasoning otherwise. Even so, it’s emblematic of how animal rights activists personalize their own experiences, rather than base their position on reason. Just because he felt that his animal experiments weren’t worthwhile and perhaps caused undue suffering, he thinks that all animal research should be banned.

Vlasak goes on:

As to the Molotov cocktail, Vlasak said that “force is a poor second choice, but if that’s the only thing that will work … there’s certainly moral justification for that.”

This is typical of Vlasak, but actually less radical than some of his previous statements. This is where Brian O’Connor’s old blog comes in handy, as he has catalogued them. I’ll pick out a choice few:

Vlasak, appearing on an Australian TV show:

Would I advocate taking five guilty vivisector’s lives to save hundreds of millions of innocent animal lives? Yes, I would.

Vlasak in an interview in The Observer 2004:

To the fury of groups working with animals, Jerry Vlasak, a trauma surgeon and prominent figure in the anti-vivisection movement, told The Observer: ‘I think violence is part of the struggle against oppression. If something bad happens to these people [animal researchers], it will discourage others. It is inevitable that violence will be used in the struggle and that it will be effective.’

Brian O’Connor has helpfully included a list of other classic Vlasak quotes:

“You can justify, from a political standpoint, any type of violence you want to use.” — “Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t!” (Showtime cable network) 4/1/04

“I think that violence and nonviolence are not moral principles, they’re tactics.” — “Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t!” (Showtime cable network) 4/1/04

“If someone is killing, on a regular basis, thousands of animals, and if that person can only be stopped in one way by the use of violence, then it is certainly a morally justifiable solution.” — “Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t!” (Showtime cable network) 4/1/04

“I think we do need to embrace direct action and violent tactics as part of our movement … I don’t think we ought to be criticizing someone, whether we’re criticizing [them] because they’re writing letters, or whether we criticize them because they’re burning down fur stores or vivisection labs. I think we need to include everybody in that circle.” — Animal Rights 2002 convention 6/27/02

“[The police] are protecting the circus, they are protecting the meat and dairy industry, they are protecting the vivisection industry and I equate them in my own mind on a moral and ethical level with the — no different than say guards in a Nazi concentration camp.” — at a panel called “Coping with Law Enforcement” at the Animal Rights 2003 LA convention 8/2/03

“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that there will come a time when we will see violence against animal rights abusers.” — “Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t!” (Showtime cable network) 4/1/04

And a transcript of an audiotape of Vlasak recorded in one of his unguarded moments:

I think there is a use for violence in our movement. And I think it can be an effective strategy. Not only is it morally acceptable, I think that there are places where it could be used quite effectively from a pragmatic standpoint.

For instance, if vivisectors were routinely being killed, I think it would give other vivisectors pause in what they were doing in their work — and if these vivisectors were being targeted for assassination, and call it political assassination or what have you, I think if — and I wouldn’t pick some guy way down the totem pole, but if there were prominent vivisectors being assassinated, I think that there would be a trickle-down effect and many, many people who are lower on that totem pole would say, ‘I’m not going to get into this business because it’s a very dangerous business and there’s other things I can do with my life that don’t involve getting into a dangerous business.’ And I think that the — strictly from a fear and intimidation factor, that would be an effective tactic.

And I don’t think you’d have to kill — assassinate — too many vivisectors before you would see a marked decrease in the amount of vivisection going on. And I think for 5 lives, 10 lives, 15 human lives, we could save a million, 2 million, 10 million non-human animals.

And I — you know — people get all excited about, ‘Oh what’s going to happen when — the ALF accidentally kills soomebody in an arson?’ Well, I mean — I think we need to get used to this idea. It’s going to happen, okay? It’s going to happen.

This is the mentality that we are dealing with. Listen to the whole interview here. I encourage you to listen to the whole thing. Note Dr. Vlasak’s dim view of humans in which he claims that 85% of people will never change unless they are made to fear.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that there should be no rules or laws to protect animals, but it’s ridiculous to claim that the life of a mouse is the equivalent to the life of a human. I do my utmost to prevent unnecessary suffering in the mice I occasionally have to use to study cancer. In fact, applications for each new animal protocol to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee has, just in the seven years that I’ve been an independent researcher, have become more and more onerous at my institution in response to federal rules that are designed to minimize the use of animals and minimize suffering of said animals. Because I don’t like killing mice and because it’s getting more expensive and bureaucratically onerous to use them, I’d abandon animal research in an instant if there were any another way to study the problems that I’m studying and get answers that might benefit human patients.

But there isn’t; so I don’t, which is why one of my retorts to animal rights radicals who are against all use of animals in research is to ask them whether they would volunteer to be the first to try a new drug that has never been tested other than in cell culture and computer models (or if they would volunteer their children to do so). If they refuse, then I ask them how they would decide what human would be the first to try the new drug. Animal models may be imperfect in predicting efficacy and side effects of new drugs, but they’re far better than any other models we have.The bottom line is that, yes, animals were poorly treated in research settings in the past, but now there exists a framework of laws and rules that do a pretty good job of minimizing the use of animals and minimizing any suffering of animals that are used for research, and all facilities doing animal research are regularly inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, as well as various state agencies. All applications for federal grants to support any form of animal research require me to provide evidence that our animal facility is certified by the above entities.

In any case, protecting research animals and minimizing their suffering is animal welfare, not animal rights. (See here for a good rule of thumb to distinguish the two. Basically, if someone believes that animals have rights equal to that of humans and that if you can’t do it to a human you shouldn’t be allowed to do it to an animal, that’s an animal rights belief, not animal welfare.) And, in reality, It’s a lie when animal rights advocates claim that animal research isn’t needed, that we can get the same information from computer or cell culture models. In cancer, that’s a total crock. I’ll give you just one example. Without animal models, we might never have discovered the importance of tumor angiogenesis in contributing to the growth of tumors, because angiogenesis requires the three dimensional interaction between tumor cells, surrounding stromal cells, and vascular cells that ultimately form the new blood vessels. Without animal research, we would never have the benefits of insulin, transplantation surgery, cardiac surgery, chemotherapy, and many other medical treatments that we now take for granted.

Sadly, though, as PZ puts it, terrorism does work, and, if animal rights terrorists aren’t put in the same category as al Qaeda or any other type of terrorists for purposes of law enforcement at both the federal, state, and local level, I fear that they may succeed in impeding biomedical research to the point where the U.S. becomes like Britain, with researchers whose work involves animal experimentation moving to countries they can do their research without worrying about Molotov cocktails being thrown at their houses.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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