Animal Rights: Scientists' Billboards Ask Whether You'd Save a Child or a Lab Rat

Billboards try to improve public view of animal research.

ByABC News
April 14, 2011, 12:36 AM

April 14, 2011— -- Medical researchers, long pilloried by animal rights activists as heartless torturers of helpless creatures, are fighting back with a provocative billboard campaign that features a white rat and a smiling little girl.

"Who would you rather see live?" the billboard asks.

That billboard has appeared in Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Chicago and Baltimore, and will soon debut in Madison, Wis. -- all cities with major medical or primate research centers. They were put up by the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Biomedical Research, a non-profit educational organization funded by universities, hospitals, advocacy groups, pharmaceutical companies, and biotech firms with a stake in animal research. The foundation, like its sister lobbying organization, the National Association of Biomedical Research, supports "humane and responsible use of animals in research."

The campaign, which cost $125,000 to $150,000, aims to push back against animal-rights activists' high-profile attempts to shut down animal experimentation, particularly neuroscience studies on primates, said Frankie Trull, the foundation's president and founder.

The foundation, which has tracked public attitudes about animal research since its creation in 1981, found "a surprisingly concerning drop in public support" for animal research from the 1990s, when it was over 70 percent, to 54 percent in 2008, Trull said.

Scientists Say Activists Attacked Them

From 2006 through 2008, militant activists from the Animal Liberation Front, the Animal Liberation Brigade and the UCLA Primate Freedom Project attacked and intimidated UCLA researchers with firebombs, online death threats and packages containing poisoned razors. UCLA sought and won restraining orders against them.

One of their targets, Dario L. Ringach, a neuroscientist at UCLA, has described how his young children slept as masked activists pounded on the doors and windows of his home. He ultimately gave up working with animals, but he says, "The human cost of not doing the research is unacceptable. Can anyone imagine not having a polio vaccine today?"

His Web page contains links to organizations founded by like-minded investigators, including Speaking of Research, which on April 4 described a new tactic, by the anti-vivisection group Negotiation is Over, "targeting university students who plan to enter the health sciences field." The group claimed success in steering a Florida Atlantic University science student away from a research career.

"Intimidating, harassing, threatening or justifying the assassination of students and faculty engaged in biomedical research to achieve a political or social goal is a form of terrorism that has no place in our democratic society," Ringach wrote in an email to ABC News on Wednesday.

Animal Rights Activists Attacked Researchers at UCLA

Waning public support for animal research prompted the Foundation for Biomedical Research in 2009 to establish ResearchSaves, designed to tell Americans that animal research led to the development of antibiotics, vaccines, surgery and diagnostic tools, said spokeswoman Liz Hodge. With only about "five seconds to capture people's attention," the new billboards encourage people "to think, even for a minute, about why animal research is necessary."

Animal Rights Activists Say Billboard Campaign Premise is False, Misleading