In May, animal rights activists gathered Washington, DC, to stage their annual March for Animals. The animal rights movement is high sophisticated and well-financed, spending an estimated $50 million a year on campaigns against fur, factory farming and the testing of pharmaceutical products on animals, and the March for the Animals has developed into a public relations and fund-raising focus for its member organizations.
This year, however, was different. The protesters found they no longer controlled the media agenda as they had in the past. Alongside the gut-wrenching, hair-raising pictures of monkeys with electrodes protruding from their skulls and dogs with their stomachs laid open there were heartwarming photographs of a little girl in a leotard and a former Olympic athlete on his bicycle, individuals whose lives had been saved by drugs tested on animals.
"It's like a sleeping giant waking up," said Fred Goodwin, head of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, of the new emphasis researchers and pharmaceutical companies are placing on communicating the role of animal testing in the development of new drugs and medical techniques.
Even organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) acknowledge that the medical establishment has become more proactive in its public relations activity. "A whole generation has grown up with animal rights as part of their consciousness," says director of special projects Dan Matthews. "The baby boom generation has a conscience about the way we treat animals, and that is reflected not only in mounting public pressure to stop these experiments but also in the fact that younger people are choosing careers other than medical research. The establishment has realized this and is fighting back."
PETA is among the most active opponents of animal experiments. It has produced countless fact sheets and brochures dealing with animal cruelty, PSAs and videos—including one showing braindamage experiments on primates at the University of Pennsylvania—and enlisted the help of professional organizations such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and celebrities such as Rue McClanahan of Golden Girls, actor River Phoenix and singer Belinda Carlisle.
But while PETA has won victories, including the termination of those Pennsylvania experiments by the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services, few within the medical establishmrnt believed animal rights activists would succeed in preventing essential research.
"It was impossible for most researchers, to conceive that the government was to actually put an end to animal experiments," says Bob Seltzer, executive vice president at PR agency Porter/Novelli. To most researchers it was clear that saving human lives was more important than public relations. But what they didn't anticipate was that the pressure would make even scientists think twice about this kind of research. It's created a major recruiting problem."
Recent years saw a dramatic change both the level of activity by animal rights campaigners and in their tactics. In the past they may have been content to march picket laboratories. Today, the most extreme have bombed labs and the homes and cars of individual researchers. It’s understandable that qualified youngsters are seeking a less controversial arena in which to practice their skills.
"The last two years have seen the pressure turned up a notch or two," says Wayne Pines, executive vice-president at BursonMarsteller and a former FDA official. "But individual pharmaceutical companies were not prepared to make a highly visible stand on this issue. That would simply have made them targets. They have been forced to work through trade associations and umbrella groups, and they have moved slowly."
The American Medical Association has been formulating a program for the past few months, and seems likely to begin a major campaign soon. But the real leadership has been supplied by the Foundation for Biomedical Research, a coalition funded by pharmaceutical companies, colleges, hospitals and research laboratories and formed in 1982.
The FBR has worked with PR agency Ogilvy & Mather, first to convince the medical establishment to take this issue seriously and more recently to communicate the issue to the public. A sister organization handles lobbying and legislative issues.
The Foundation's first challenge, says Ogilvy executive vice-president Beth Waters, was to convince researchers themselves that this was an important issue, and one that called for their personal involvement. It was not easy. Few professionals are comfortable with communications, and none are less comfortable than those trained in science.
"They felt their job was research, not public relations," Waters says. "And being scientists they did not like to communicate unless they could communicate fully." That meant few were prepared to defend their colleagues' work without actually seeing that work and understanding the context, while those who did speak out preferred detailed answers to the highly emotional sound-bites provided by their opponents.
As the issue escalated and the threat to medical research grew, the FBR—working through medical associations and hospitals and universities—found an increasing number of people prepared to speak out, but it was important to go beyond the research establishment. Mirroring techniques being used by the Foundation's opponents, celebrity spokespeople were recruited, ranging from Charlton Heston to Tony Randall to Helen Hayes, who appeared in a VNR discussing her daughter's death from polio. More importantly, physicians and patients were enlisted in the cause.
"We felt that the moral high ground belonged to us," says Waters. "We felt that if we could show how lives had been saved because of animal experimentation we would reach people on an emotional as well as a factual level."
One example of this tactic is a recently-produced book, Portraits, which profiles individuals affected by animal research, including nine-year-old Lyla Koch, born with reversed ventricles and kept alive by a pacemaker tested on animals; The National editor Frank Deford, whose son died of cystic fibrosis; and former Olympic skier Jimmie Huega, who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
Lyla Koch's mother is typical of those quoted: "I owe the biggest debt in the world to animal research," she says. "Without it Lyla wouldn't be here."
Former Surgeon-General C. Everett Koop has joined the board of the Foundation and spoken out, appearing in PSAs talking about the benefits of animal research. Organizations like the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society have leant their support. And in a new video, surgeon Judson Randall of the Children's National Medical Center talks about children saved by animal tested products and those who died before such products were developed.
Meanwhile, researchers and pharmaceutical companies announcing new medications are making a point of mentioning the role of animal research in their breakthroughs. Leaflets distributed through colleges and doctors offices contrast myth and fact, and explain why researchers cannot use cell cultures and computer models (as suggested by PETA and others.) The strongest concentrate on the human angle, asking What If—There Were No Animal Research; the weakest argue that researchers have the greatest concern for laboratory animals. From a PR standpoint, it's necessary to make the argument, but not completely convincing.
"We have found the media coverage becoming more balanced," says Waters "Our message is getting out, and people are listening." She cites public opinion research conducted in 1983, showing that 77% of the American public supports biomedical research using animals even if that research fails to produce any breakthrough. That level of support has remained constant despite the millions of dollars spent by opponents.
Dan Matthews, of PETA, sees things differently. "We're delighted with the approach the research industry is taking," he says. "For ten years the fur industry has taken the same approach, labeling us terrorists. As a result they attracted more publicity and frightened off their entire market. They shot themselves in the foot, and now we see medical researchers doing the same thing."
In the end, however, the public is likely to continue to see profound ethical differences between the killing of animals for their fur and the use of animals in developing life-saving medication. Meanwhile, more and more individuals within the medical community are prepared to stand up and be counted on this issue and Beth Waters and others sense the "moral high ground" shifting.