New measures to stem violent harassment by animal rights extremists in the UK had a palpable impact last year. Not only were there no personal assaults on people involved in the use or supply of animals for medical research, but ‘home visits’ by animal rights protestors fell sharply to 20 from 57 in 2005 and a peak of 259 in 2003, reports the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

The ABPI’s figures also showed that the number of abusive or threatening letters and text messages received by pharmaceutical companies and their suppliers dropped from 36 in 2005 to just six last year. Incidents of damage to property were down from 86 to 50. Following encouraging signs in 2005, the latest data reflect “a sustained downward trend in violent and intimidating animal extremism”, the ABPI said.

At the same time, the number of people engaging in peaceful protests against animal research had remained constant, “showing that the new laws brought in to tackle extremism have not harmed the rights of freedom of speech”, the association pointed out.

The Labour government has increasingly recognised the threat posed to pharmaceutical R&D in the UK by escalating campaigns of intimidation against animal researchers and their associates. One perennial target, Huntingdon Life Sciences, was forced to delist from the London Stock Exchange and shift its main operations to the US. In early 2005, the ABPI warned that pharmaceutical companies might seriously consider taking animal research outside the UK.

New provisions under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 made it a criminal offence to target any scientist, research facility or company in the supply chain with a campaign of unlawful acts, which included criminal damage, trespass, blackmail and libel. A dedicated police unit was formed to tackle animal rights extremism, while company directors and shareholders were granted anonymity to protect them from intimidation. By mid-2006, the ABPI was reporting a “sea change” in the levels of harassment in the UK, with the number of attacks by extremists on private homes more than halving in the first six months of 2006 against the same period of 2005.

Battle not over yet

The latest figures confirm this trend. Not that the battle is over yet, though, as GSK found last May when it had to take out a High Court injunction to prevent shareholders’ personal details from being published on the internet. An animal rights organisation had used this threat as leverage in letters urging GSK investors to sell their holdings in the company.

While noting that the number of ‘capitulations’ (companies and organisations pressured into cutting their ties with the animal research sector) had also declined sharply in 2006 – to 39 from 103 in 2005 – the ABPI acknowledged that extremist activity had been “curbed but not defeated”, with reports of further attacks in the opening weeks of 2007. And there were signs of extremism being exported to mainland Europe, although proposed amendments to the new Serious Crime Bill would help to check this tendency by allowing restrictions on travel by organised criminals, it said. By Peter Mansell

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