Activists stage ‘die-in’ to protest animal testing in UC Berkeley labs

Cesar Ruiz/Staff
Protesters began their demonstration in front of the Valley Life Sciences Building but moved to Sproul Hall to attract a larger audience

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About 15 protesters sprawled across the steps of Sproul Hall at noon Thursday, making their motionless bodies the centerpiece of a protest against the treatment of animals in UC Berkeley research labs.

The protest, termed a “die-in,” was organized by Direct Action Everywhere, an international group that advocates animal rights, to raise awareness of alleged animal cruelty in UC Berkeley labs. Activists “died” on the steps to address what they called a contradiction between the advancement of the life sciences and the 100,000-plus animal deaths they say occur each year.

But according to Roger Van Andel, director of the Office of Laboratory Animal Care, the campus only houses about 35,000 mice, which make up most of its research animal population.

Activists from the organization recently protested against Chipotle in May and UC Berkeley in February, after the campus was slapped with a fine for a 2011 violation of the Animal Welfare Act. They say all creatures, humans and nonhumans alike, are animals and demand total animal liberation, particularly in the field of medicine.

“Even if they aren’t violating the Animal Welfare Act, UC Berkeley is a place of terrible suffering for anyone who isn’t a human,” said Brian Burns, an activist and recent graduate of Head-Royce School in Oakland. “Just because someone is different from you — be it a dog, a cat, a pig or a rat — does not mean they deserve to be hurt or killed.”

UC Berkeley’s animal testing program operates under stringent procedures that require review under the Animal Care and Use Committee, according to Van Andel. He said the 2011 incident, in which five voles — micelike animals — died of dehydration, was an isolated incident and that UC Berkeley has since changed its practices to minimize the chances of a repeated episode.

But the activists argue that animal testing, no matter the circumstances, is a major injustice.

“In the moment, (the benefit) might seem like it’s a fair trade-off,” said activist Felicia Baeza, a part-time student at Evergreen Valley College, about medical testing. “But overall, you’re just keeping the idea alive that certain beings are less than.”

The benefits that animal testing provides, however, are wide-reaching, according to Van Andel. He noted that experiments have helped develop treatments for diseases such as diabetes and cancer and have improved the field of veterinary medicine — meaning that animal testing’s benefits aren’t always humancentric.

Campus professor of neuroscience John Ngai, whose lab performs animal testing, said testing is an “inescapable fact of life” as long as society continues to push for medical advances.

The protest was intended to make students pause to think, Baeza said. But not all passersby were convinced by the effort.

While Richard Hunter, a UC Berkeley alumnus who participated in the Free Speech Movement in 1964, applauded the idea of student protests, his daughter, Eve Hunter, said the die-in lacked information.

“It’s very dramatic,” she said. “But it’s not talking about what about the science isn’t fair to animals.”

Burns, who called the activist turnout “fantastic,” said public opinion on animal treatment is changing.

“Hundreds of years ago, people would publicly beat and torture cats and dogs for fun as games in town squares … If anyone did that now, they would be called a monster,” Burns said. “I think that people are waking up and realizing that this is just as wrong.”

Contact Katy Abbott at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @katyeabbott.