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Monkeying around with the truth

TV Review: 'Monkeys, Rats and Me', BBC2, Monday 27 November 2006

This documentary examined the ethics of animal experiments by using the SPEAK campaign and Professor Tipu Aziz's research as a case study. However, there were a number of fundamental flaws in the programme that amounted to a systematic pro-vivisection bias. This may come as a surprise to reviewers such as Lucy Mangan in the Guardian [1]. But her lack of knowledge of the subject means that she doesn't understand how the programme misled through omitting key issues, assuming controversial assertions were true, and by framing the debate in terms that directly reflect the perspective put forward by the pro-vivisection lobby.

An axe to grind?

Perhaps one of the most revealing comments made by the reporter, Adam Wishart, was that he had 'no qualms about killing a rat he found in his kitchen'. It's one thing to be prepared to kill an animal, but his total lack of compunction reveals his extremely unsympathetic attitude to animals. Wishart's value judgements were also betrayed by his description of non-humans as 'lower animals'. Wishart claimed that he 'had no axe to grind' - really?

Presenting controversies as facts

The concerns about underlying bias are exacerbated by the fact that Tipu Aziz's claims regarding the validity and benefits of his research were not subject to even cursory examination. Indeed, from the very beginning the programme's narrative worked on the assumption that Aziz's vivisection of monkeys was valid, predictive and necessary. Repeatedly, the claim that there would be no medicine if it were not for animal research went unchallenged, despite such an argument being rejected by the pro-vivisection Nuffield thinktank [2].

Instead of exploring scientific critiques of Aziz's work, Wishart presented researchers as infallible experts driven purely by altruism. There was no investigation of the role of economic and professional self-interest in motivating animal research, or the historical context that now structures researchers' choices about experimental methods [3]. Similarly, features of pro-vivisection activity likely to be particularly controversial were evaded. Thus Aziz's extreme position, exemplified by his support for cosmetic testing on animals [4], and the financial relationship between the Pro-Test group and the pharmaceutical industry (via the Research Defence Society) were overlooked [5].

Negative positioning of anti-vivisectionists

In contrast, the show portrayed anti-vivisection campaigners as violent and irrational - no scientific or academic critiques of animal research were aired. There was even an attempt to undermine the moral basis of campaigners through the suggestion that the main motivation of activists was a sense of belonging to a like-minded network. Interestingly, Wishart never attempted to second-guess the motivations of vivisectors.

The truth about vivisection secrecy

This positioning of the anti-vivisection movement was designed to present it in an unpopular light, and fed into one of the documentary's most misleading themes (once again unquestioningly reflecting Aziz's claims): that the secrecy surrounding vivisection was due entirely to 'extremist' action. Was this lazy or dishonest journalism? For, the fact of the matter is that secrecy in this policy area predates animal rights militancy by about 100 years. The most detailed historical study of animal research policy is Richard French's (1975) Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press). Discussing his methodology, he notes:

'My account of the administration of the [1876 Cruelty to Animals] Act is largely based upon Home Office ~156 letterbooks. It is a measure of the sensitivity of the vivisection issue that these documents remain under one hundred year restriction and I am most grateful to the Home Office for permitting me to examine the nineteenth-century letterbooks for the purposes of this study'.

The underlying reason for secrecy in this policy area is to minimise public awareness of animal suffering and thus control the political agenda. In reality, what is happening at the moment is that a tight-knit network comprised of government policy-makers, animal research industry leaders and some in the media with a fairly extreme pro-animal research agenda are promoting the storyline of 'animal rights extremism' as a way of positioning and discrediting anyone critical of the status quo in animal research policy, and to suppress legitimate freedom of information. The Research Defence Society's internal newsletter gives the game away. Contradicting their public statements, they state: 'it is very safe to speak out in the media'. [6]

Hiding animal suffering

To complete the set of pro-vivisection myths, the programme promoted the idea that animal experiments were not painful. Once again, Aziz was permitted to make false assertions with impunity. He claimed that pain 'was not part of the process of his research'. Yet anyone with any knowledge of his research knows this is untrue. The programme showed the initial stages of his research, where Felix the monkey was forced to spend hours in a tiny cage as he was trained to perform certain movements. This was disturbing enough in terms of the severe behavioural limitations imposed on the monkey and resultant psychological suffering. However, the later and most severe stage of the experiments - which were not broadcast - involved the artificial induction of 'Parkinsonism' (NB this is not the same as human Parkinson's Disease) through damaging the brain of the monkey, resulting in a range of significant disabilities and illnesses. Similar earlier experiments were recognised by the Home Office as having to cause 'substantial' pain and suffering [7].

The inaccurate, sanitised image of animal experimentation presented by the programme typified its general pro-vivisection agenda. Interestingly, Aziz's denial of animal pain in his experiments suggests that he is incapable of fulfilling the legal responsibilities of a licence holder - not that the Home Office is genuinely bothered about compliance with the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.

In conclusion, 'Monkeys, Rats and Me' presented a heavily one-sided and distorted perspective on this most heated of controversies, a manifestation of the boasts of pro-vivisectionists about their privileged access to journalists. Ironically, in a context where pleas are made for rational debate as a means of resolving the more extreme aspects of this conflict, this piece of propaganda will do nothing to encourage a reduction in the 'extremism' it purported to highlight.

Useful links:


  1. www.guardian.co.uk/tv_and_radio/story/0,,1958573,00.html
  2. Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2005), The ethics of research involving animals: xviii
  3. Nuffield: 36-7.
  4. The Guardian, 'Scientist backs animal testing for cosmetics' March 4 2006 www.guardian.co.uk/frontpage/story/0,,1723194,00.html - accessed 29 November 2006).
  5. Pro-Test website (www.pro-test.org.uk/about.php) accessed 29 November 2006.
  6. RDS Newsletter, Autumn 2006.
  7. Animal Procedures Committee, Report for 1997: 12.

Uncaged Campaigns 29.11.06


Uncaged 1993-2012: This is the archived website of Uncaged. All information correct at the time of archiving - November 2012.