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  • Animal-rights activists break into facility in Milan, are smacked down online
May 2013
May. 1, 2013 — I almost always regret reading the comments sections of online articles. The speed with which they devolve into vitriol and simple, unrestrained idiocy is breathtaking and totally dispiriting. Millions of years of evolution give us the capacity for speech and abstract thought, and the wherewithal to build technologies enabling us to communicate with countless others around the globe in an instant, and this is what we do with those gifts. Comments sections make me weep for humanity.

Still, every now and then I come across a comments thread that doesn’t make me want to claw my eyes out. This happened just last week, in fact, with a news article on “Animal-rights activists wreak havoc in Milan laboratory.” Here, I found a number of measured and informative comments and even a few that revealed relatable, human feelings on the part of the researchers — something we don’t see often enough in public discourse.

A little bit of context: The weekend before last, activists from the animal-rights group Fermare Green Hill (or Stop Green Hill; Green Hill is a dog-breeding facility near Brescia, Italy) occupied the animal facility at the University of Milan, where genetically modified mice and rabbits are used in studies of psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. During the 12-hour standoff they mixed up animal and cage labels — thus wrecking any experiments in progress — and took down the names of investigators from the labels, some of which they later published on their Facebook page.

The group’s demands? They weren’t leaving without the animals, they said — failing to recognize, perhaps, that at least some of animals were mutant, immunosuppressed “nude” mice that would quickly die outside the controlled environment of the facility.

The comments following the article represent the perspectives of both investigators and animal-rights activists and address a range of topics with a heady mix of rational argument and passionate, occasionally uninformed rebuttal. The thread inevitably turns into something like a shouting match, but even as it does it forms a compelling defense of animal research, with the investigators responding to the activist’s charges with detailed explanations of how the research has already contributed to improved health outcomes, why it can’t be replaced with cell cultures and computer modeling, and so on.

(Importantly, it also shows the investigators to be actual people who have weighed the benefits of the research against the often difficult facts, not the unfeeling torturers and killers other commenters suggest. “Contrary to popular belief among certain groups, researchers do not rub their hands together with glee at the prospect of using animals,” one investigator said.)

Meanwhile, scientists in Milan held a protest of their own, seeking to call attention to the “ignorance and bullying tactics” of Fermare Green Hill. The demonstration was organized by a new science advocacy group called Pro-Test Italia and the scientific organization FederFauna.

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