A timid silence often follows public attacks on scientists who use animals in their research. But today a group of ten heavyweight academic organisations in Germany shed its habitual reserve and raised a stern collective voice against animal-rights activists whose recent advertising campaign targeted an individual neuroscientist.
The activists overstepped the line between freedom of expression and unacceptable defamation, said the group, known as the Alliance of Science Organisations, which includes the Max Planck Society, the DFG grant-giving agency, the Conference of University Rectors and the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. In particular, it said, activists depicted Andreas Kreiter, who uses monkeys in his research, as ‘not quite human’.
The row began on 16 April, when the Tierversuchsgegner Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Opponents of Animal Experiments Federal Republic of Germany) placed an aggressive full-page advertisement in two national quality newspapers and three regional newspapers.
The advertisement comprised a long treatise against animal research. It focused on Kreiter, from the University of Bremen, but also called on “all citizens” to treat every animal experimenter “with contempt and to denounce their work publicly”.
Its headline read “Kreiter cold-bloodedly carries on”, a reference to a federal court’s recent decision that local authorities in Bremen acted illegally in trying to stop his research. This legal decision had led Kreiter to believe his 16-year struggle to continue his studies into mechanisms of attention, one of the pillars of consciousness research, had finally ended. In the late 1990s Kreiter and his family had to be placed under police protection.
The advertisement set Kreiter’s photograph next to a picture of a primate with a number tattooed onto its chest, and with its head secured against movement during an experiment. It claimed that Kreiter’s experiments cruelly torment primates without yielding any medical advances.
This personalisation of the animal debate helped to spur the Alliance into action, as did the advertisement’s provocative opening quotation, attributed to neurologist and animal protectionist Herbert Stiller: “Animal experimenters are a particular type of creature – one should not casually call them human.”
The citation also precipitated an unprecedented debate in the press, because the right to human dignity is considered sacred in Germany and is enshrined in the first article of the country’s post-war constitution. During the Nazi era, categories of people like Jews, gypsies or the handicapped were declared to be ‘sub-human’ and killed.
In its public statement, the Alliance “expressly and decisively condemns” the advertisement. It says that animal research is necessary and is carried out under the tight contol of the authorities.
Welcoming the Alliance’s first public defence of animal research, neuroscientist Stefan Treue, director of the German Primate Centre in Göttingen, says that the affair “reinforces the recognition of the scientific community that we really need a public information platform where citizens and journalists can learn the facts about why animal research is needed”.
Kreiter says he is disappointed that the debate around his work has been reactivated. “This type of attack is hardly new for me,” he adds. “But these advertisements were particularly aggressive.”