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Building firm pulls out of Oxford research lab

July 20, 2004 By Peter Aldhous This article courtesy of Nature News.

Contractor bows to pressure from animal-rights activists.

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British animal-rights protesters have won another victory, now that the lead contractor building a research facility at the University of Oxford has withdrawn from the project.

The protesters' opponents condemn the campaign of intimidation that led to the contractor's move. But they argue that it represents a minor hiccup, rather than a signal that the protesters are winning their war to end experimentation on animals.

Oxford officials say that the US$33.5-million facility, due to open next year, is vital to the future of research at the university. Most of the planned research would be on rodents, investigating conditions including cancer, heart disease and stroke. Some monkeys would also be used.

The lab became the main focus for the attention of British animal rights activists after the University of Cambridge abandoned plans to build a primate research facility in January this year. That decision was in part due to the soaring costs of providing security in the face of repeated protests.

Repeating the tactics employed in previous campaigns, protesters soon began targeting contractors building the Oxford lab. The offices of a company providing concrete were heavily vandalized. Activists also sent letters to the shareholders of the lead contractor, a company called Montpellier, purporting to be from its chairman. These urged shareholders to sell their stock to avoid reprisals from the animal rights movement.

Scientists defiant

On 19 July, the University of Oxford announced that its contract with Montpellier had been terminated "by mutual consent". University officials are cagey about their plans, but are confident that another contractor will be found and that the project will not be delayed.

Groups that represent scientists working with animals are similarly defiant, and point to the example of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a company that conducts research for pharmaceutical firms and other clients at its laboratories near Cambridge.

Companies providing services to HLS have been subject to intimidation, but HLS has found ways to protect their identities and continue with its work. "The bottom line, here, is that we're learning to deal with it," says Mark Matfield, executive director of the RDS, formerly the Research Defence Society.

Nevertheless, the RDS and other organizations are pressing for a change in UK law that would allow offences committed in the name of animal rights to be treated as 'aggravated' crimes, similar to racially motivated attacks. This would result in much stiffer sentences being handed down by the courts.

Following the Oxford announcement, the home secretary David Blunkett, who is responsible for the British criminal justice system, said that the police would be given "whatever they request" to clamp down on "internal terrorists". But he stopped short of saying that the law should be changed.

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