The organizers of today's Pro-Test rally at the University of California, Los Angeles, say it succeeded beyond their hopes. Hundreds of people—many of them students and postdocs—came out to show their support for biomedical research. U.S. scientists who use animals in their research have been under attack from animal rights extremists in recent years, and UCLA has been the epicenter. Many scientists have been reluctant to speak up in defense of their work for fear of provoking further harassment. But today that changed.
"I'm amazed," UCLA neuroscientist David Jentsch said of the turnout (campus police put the crowd at about 700). Jentsch organized the rally after waking up one night last month to find his car in flames. Animal rights activists later claimed responsibility. Jentsch modeled today's rally on protests at the University of Oxford that helped turn the tide of public opinion against animal rights extremists who opposed construction of a research lab there. Despite the time and effort it took away from his research and the hate e-mail he endured, Jentsch says the rally was worth it. "I think putting our faces on what we do humanizes the effort and makes it harder to write obscene things in the middle of the night and to brutalize people."
Pro-testers gathered on the edge of the UCLA campus as a counter protest staged by animal rights groups was winding down across the street. The anti-vivisection rally, part of the annual World Week for Animals in Laboratories, attracted fewer people—several dozen—and at times there seemed to be almost as many journalists as protesters. The media, including CNN and several local television stations, had turned out perhaps hoping to see a confrontation. There wasn't one. The visible police presence may have helped, but everyone on both sides appeared to be on their best behavior.
Well, more or less.
A man wearing a gorilla suit and dark sunglasses carried a sign that read: "Bring it on f**kers. End the animal holocaust." He declined to give his name, but described animal research as "stupid and cruel." A young woman standing with him elaborated somewhat: "Whatever they find in monkeys they have to test on people anyway," she said. "It's pointless."
Others had more nuanced views. Third year UCLA law student Jill Ryther, a member of the campus Animal Law Society, explained that her group opposes animal research on the grounds that it's cruel, expensive for taxpayers, and potentially harmful to human health. She cited the drug Vioxx as an example of a therapy that had shown benefits in animal tests but ended up being blamed for many deaths in humans. At the same time, Ryther said she doesn't advocate firebombings and other illegal attacks against researchers. Those tactics "are giving animal rights activists a bad name," she said.
By the time the anti-vivisection protesters marched off to hear several speakers sympathetic to their cause, a larger crowd had gathered across the street. Many had brought homemade signs. One read: "Animal research is pro human life. Terrorism is not." UCLA neurobiologist Shlomo Dellal was wearing his lab coat in the hot sun. "This is what I am," he said when asked why. "I don't want to hide it." Dellal says he came to the rally to stand up for his colleagues who've been victims of threats and harassment.
In the crowd I spotted UCLA neuroscientist Dario Ringach, who announced in 2006 that he would give up his animal research if activists would stop harassing him and his family. "I came because I don't think people should have to face a choice between the security of their family and their research," he told me later. "I came to defend academic research and academic freedom."
As the group marched towards the science quad, Tom Holder, the energetic young British activist who played an active role in the Pro-Test movement at the University of Oxford, ran alongside doing his best to get some chants started. Lynn Fairbanks, the first researcher attacked in the recent spate of incidents at UCLA, was among the first speakers. She said she spoke not as a researcher, but as the mother of a son who had juvenile diabetes. "Animal research saved my son's life," she said. "It's not true when they say it doesn't work."
Other speakers briefly addressed additional arguments commonly made by animal rights activists—that animal research is unnecessarily cruel, that it's unregulated, that it reveals nothing that couldn't be learned from tissue culture experiments, computer modeling, and other methods. The lack of public understanding on these issues has been exploited by animal rights extremists, said John Young, the director of comparative medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and chairman of the board of the pro-research group Americans for Medical Progress. He urged scientists to take pride in what they do and help educate the general public. "The public wants to hear our story," he said.
After Young spoke, Holder, who'd been acting as MC, finally managed to get a fairly cohesive chant going. "No more threats, no more fear, animal research wanted here." Perhaps it was a bit hokey, but at least scientists seemed to be speaking with one voice, and loudly.
UCLA has a video of Holder and some of the other speakers here: