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Tuesday, 24 October, 2000, 09:13 GMT 10:13 UK
Animal Rights and Wrongs
It's eleven o'clock on a bright September morning outside Liverpool St station in the city of London. Under the watchful eye of the City police an unlikely looking group has assembled. They are mostly women, and amongst them are a teacher, a businesswoman, a retired solicitor, a former accountant, and a few others who wouldn't look out of place in an anarchists' squat. This is the London branch of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, and they've gathered with their drums, hooters and megaphones to try and dissuade city institutions from investing in an animal research company called Huntingdon Life Sciences.
For almost a year Huntingdon Life Sciences has been the focus of a sustained animal rights campaign. The campaigners' ultimate aim: nothing less than to close the company down. They take heart from the demise in the last few years of dog, cat and monkey breeders in the South East. But HLS, a multi million pound company with over a thousand employees, is a much bigger target.
We live in an age in which ordinary people want to voice their opinions on the methods of big business. From the back streets of Seattle to the cobbled alleyways of Prague, protestors are shouting out their views, and big business is being forced to sit up and listen. The laboratories of Huntingdon Life Sciences, situated in the Cambridgeshire fenland outside the medieval town of Huntingdon, are the UK frontline of this particular movement.
Tired of handing out leaflets and writing to MPs, the campaigners believe they can target investors in HLS, and undermine the company's entire financial base. Direct action is the way to do it. They plan to disrupt the daily business of any company investing in HLS.
We follow the bizarre group as they march through the city heading for their first target. There's something faintly comic as they scrutinise an old A-Z for directions and peer at road signs. But within a few minutes they've arrived at the American bank Merrill Lynch, and all hell is about to break loose.
Merrill Lynch, say the protestors, are investors in torture: They hold eight million shares in HLS. Merrill Lynch insist that any shareholding is only on behalf of clients. That's a distinction that these campaigners won't accept. A shareholding is a shareholding, and they are there to do something about it.
Suddenly, the air is pierced by the sound of whistles, drums, sirens and megaphones as the protestors advance through the bank's swing doors. "Sell your shares now", yells one formidable woman in a sleeveless shirt "We will be here every week 'til you sell your shares in animal abuse and torture" shouts another. Six beefy security guards are swiftly on the scene, and the protestors are forced out of the foyer and back onto the forecourt. But the racket continues for twenty minutes and more. Employees heading into work look bemused, bewildered and occasionally a little frightened.
I buttonhole one of the more vocal of the protestors. Dawn Parkes is in her early forties. Her normal job is running a cleaning business, and she's a veteran of several animal rights campaigns.
"We're letting the City know that there's a price to pay for investing in animal abuse and torture", she says, her accent betraying her North East origins. "But surely," I venture timidly, "These are just bankers and investors going about their lawful business". "Absolutely, but they should now be thinking twice about investing in companies that torture animals for profit, " comes the riposte. The protesters claim that many of the bankers sympathise, once they've had their case explained to them.
But not all city workers share the campaigners' lofty ambitions.
The alarming thing, or wonderful thing, depending on your perspective, is that the protestors do seem to be having an effect. In May West LB Panmure resigned as stockbrokers to HLS after sustained campaigning. And in February, pension fund manager PDFM sold their ten per cent holding when they were targeted, although they had also suffered a series of bomb threats.
Behind the razor wire and electronic gates in the Cambridgeshire countryside Huntingdon Life Sciences deny any allegations that they abuse animals. They point out that their work is vital for the testing of life saving new drugs. I put it to Brian Cass, the company's Managing Director, that the protestors were making HLS untouchable amongst UK financial institutions. I expect him to deny that they are having any effect. His reply takes me slightly by surprise.
"It may have worked in the sense of us now seeking a different investor base", he concedes, "and we must look for an investor base which is not going to be subject to those direct intimidatory tactics. But we will still have an investor base, whether it's in the UK, the US, continental Europe or the Far East. We're not going to give in to terrorists"
I don't know whether to be alarmed or pleased at what we've found. I'm concerned that the protestors seem to be taking the law into their own hands. And I'm always disturbed by the clear-eyed certainties of those, like the protestors. who claim to obey a higher moral code. It reminds me too much of a religious cult. But I'm secretly pleased that some people, at least, are trying to hold big business up to scrutiny. I make a note in my diary to return to the area in two years to find out who in the City is still investing in Huntingdon Life Sciences. And to find out who amongst this unlikely group of protestors is still spending their Monday mornings marching around the Square Mile with a megaphone.
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