When the rights of animals interfere violently with the right to information – by Fabio Turone

There are issues that science journalists must handle with particular care, and others that they know will put them in trouble. Some withdraw cautiously, but others do it anyway, trying […]

There are issues that science journalists must handle with particular care, and others that they know will put them in trouble.

Some withdraw cautiously, but others do it anyway, trying not to be intimidated: last week several Italian colleagues went on writing what they thought had to be written about the ongoing controversy stemming from the protests of activists for animal rights, and specifically about what would be the effects of the invoked ban on animal testing on present and future medical research.

Immediately a very strong, intimidating and even threatening campaign was deployed also against them through personal e-mail and the social media. They became the “torturers” themselves of the poor beagle puppies.
But let’s start from the beginning. Knowing that National parliaments are called by the EU to adopt new legislation to strengthen and harmonise animal welfare standards across Europe, Italian activists for animal rights chose  a breeding facility located in Northern Italy as a symbol of “vivisection”. They started petitions asking for it to be shut down, and then became threatening.
Of course, they knew that the picture of a puppy of beagle “saved” from certain death in a prison surrounded by barbed wire would be very effective emotionally, so they decided to burst into the facility, cause remarkable damage and take away a dozen cute little dogs (the fact that the barbed wire was put there because of their own threats was of course a negligible detail).

Italy was flooded with messages of solidarity in favor of the activists that had been arrested with several serious charges, and the recurrent “mantra” spread with little variants by a lot of people was “We don’t need to research on animals. Animal testing of drugs is useless and even dangerous. Effective alternatives exist, and it would be silly/idiotic/criminal not to use them. Ban vivisection!”

The cover by the Italian weekly Panorama on what would happen if animal testing were banned, that sparked an indimidating campaign against its authors.

Many media covered the issue, mostly letting the science in the fuzzy background. The weeklies Panorama and l’Espresso also entered the fray, trying to set the record straight. Panorama dedicated the cover to the issue, assigned to a specialised freelancer, while for l’Espresso it was an influential columnist (who is a transplantologist and currently a senator) who wrote about the delicate issue.

The violent reaction that ensued pushed our association “Science Writers in Italy” to point out in a public statement that it was their duty to write what they found appropriate about the lack of viable alternatives to animal testing.

We reaffirmed  that science journalists should not be the object of threatening e-mail and web campaigns just for honestly doing their jobs.

It should be obvious, but in Italy it isn’t.

When the issue was raised on Facebook, UK colleague Michael Kenward recalled that he had also received threatening mail when he was Editor in Chief at “The New Scientist”.

So it’s not  a new phenomenon, for sure.

But maybe there is something that National associations and EUSJA can do to point out that at stake in these cases is the right of citizens of being correctly informed about complex issues that have a huge impact on their present and future lives.
Post Scriptum

I almost forgot: on the following issue L’Espresso decided to interview a French “scientific expert” who claims that animal testing is useless and dangerous (in Italian we have a say that goes “dare un colpo al cerchio e uno alla botte” to define those who refuse to take a clear position on something).

The interviewee has in fact a good curriculum as a scientist (now retired) and has been repeating the very same concept for at least the last 10 years (searching for his publications I found a letter he published on the New Scientist in 2002). But even if he is retired he was evidently unable to work on a review article, like scientists are supposed (and requested) to do: his last reference in Medline is from 2004, and none of his 40 peer-reviewed articles (h-index 9) addresses such a relevant topic directly (L’Espresso wrote he has “hundreds of scientific studies on the issue”, evidently widening the concept of “scientific study”).

He praised toxicogenomics as the alternative to animal testing, and he was not asked anything specific, nor asked whether it’s a great idea opposed by the establishment or a specific branch of mainstream research (Google immediately shows that it’s the latter, promising but far from offering the solution to all problems).

Finally, there is one question I really don’t know why the colleague hasn’t asked: «If all-encompassing alternative methods exist, why don’t you collect money and put together a team of scientists to develop safe and effective drugs with those methods? There certainly is a huge market for the first who will be able to sell “animal-friendly” drugs… This should appeal a lot of private money, right?”
In case you ever meet the guy, please ask him this question for me.

About Fabio Turone

Fabio Turone directs the Agency Zoe of scientific and medical information. He is President of Science Writers in Italy, Course Director of the International School of Science Journalism based in Erice, Sicily, and works with UNESCO at the Balkan School of Science Journalism.