Attacks Mount in Animal Battle ; UNIVERSITIES Anti-Vivisection Activists Have Stepped Up Their Campaign to Stop the Building of a New Laboratory at Oxford University. Nick Jackson Talks to Protesters and Medical Researchers about What's at Stake

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'I believe all things in life are connected. These animals suffer terribly, they're probably destroyed, and they get no choice in it," says Kevin, 41. "We should bring back the death penalty and do these experiments on rapists and paedophiles."

This month, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) announced in a statement circulated to activists that anyone associated with Oxford University is a legitimate target for attack, after work restarted late last year on the university's pounds 18m biomedical facility.

Kevin was one of a couple of dozen animal rights activists who spent Saturday afternoon bunched up behind police lines against the wall of the Vodafone shop in Oxford city centre. Until the megaphones were brought out, the small group was nearly drowned out by a Catholic band drumming up converts down the road.

To a background of the activists' more secular chants, Kevin, an unemployed builder from Cirencester, explained the strange sartorial ethics of wearing a leather jacket to an animal rights protest.

"The cow was killed for food, I'm not against that, people have to eat meat to live," he told me. Kevin is clearly not a member of the vegetarian ALF. "And you've got to wear a leather jacket on a motorbike, this jacket's saved my skin a few times."

Elsewhere, a passer-by argued with the statistics on the campaign leaflets. "At least we do our shoelaces up," a protester commented to a sloppily dressed maths graduate.

The violent explosion of the 350-strong animal rights demo that marked the beginning of term seems to have been dampened by the chill Oxford winter to a whimper. It is not the mass disruption campaigners have been threatening.

Since 2004 the Oxford biomedical facility has been dogged by protests organised by Speak, the group that forced Cambridge to drop plans to build a primate laboratory two years ago. That summer, building at Oxford stopped for 16 months when the construction company dropped out after shareholders were threatened by activists.

Last year a boathouse was burnt down and a bomb was planted at a sports facility. Two weeks ago an architect working on the project had his car attacked.

Last week Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs, a campaign made famous after activists stole the remains of a guinea pig farmer's dead mother-in-law, handed over its resources to the Oxford campaign after the Newchurch farm closed. Oxford has taken out an injunction against Speak and the ALF and millions of pounds of government money is being spent on security.

They have good reason to be worried. New figures from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, due to be released this week, show that animal rights activists are abandoning conventional methods for more extreme tactics. Some 36 abusive emails, letters, and texts from animal rights activists were reported in 2005, compared with only a third of that number in 2004' incendiary attacks leapt from one in the whole of 2003 and 2004 to eight last year.

Robin Webb, press officer for the Animal Liberation Front, the group behind most of these attacks, says this will only rise further over the next year. "I can only foresee an increase in illegal actions," he says. "That will be the fault of the Government for outlawing protest that was legal. People will be thinking, why not take a few steps to the radical end of the movement?"

There has been a widespread crackdown on animal rights activists by the authorities. That has meant more prosecutions, Asbos, and two new offences brought in under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act to protect research institutions from intimidation. Both carry five-year terms' seven arrests have been made so far.

Activists say the police have interpreted the act as a licence to provoke them and claim that the new laws and the injunction are an attack on their freedom of expression. …