Animal Aid

History of the campaign to stop Cambridge University building a massive monkey research centre

Cambridge University's plans for a massive new primate research centre on green belt land on the outskirts of the city were first made public in 2000. The animals would be subjected to invasive brain experiments, which - it is claimed - would aid understanding and treatment of human neurological conditions.

Since that time, the proposals have been opposed not only by Animal Aid, the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) and other animal protection and scientific groups, but also by South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridgeshire Police.

The plans were first rejected by South Cambridgeshire District Council in 2001, because of the impact they would have on the green belt. In February 2002, the University's appeal was rejected, this time because of recommendations by the police.

Monkeys in cage

"...it would be a stronger argument to say that it is nationally important to keep together and service the excellent and acknowledged research expertise in Cambridge to catch up on alternative forms of research to that employing animals."
Planning Inspector Stuart Nixon

For two weeks from 26 November 2002, a public inquiry was presided over by Planning Inspector Stuart Nixon, in which Animal Aid and NAVS played a leading part. This resulted in the government inspector ruling against the project on medical and scientific grounds as well as those relating to green belt encroachment and public order.

When, on 21 November 2003, Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, overruled his own inspector and gave permission to the university to proceed, Animal Aid and NAVS lodged their High Court challenge.

Then, on January 27, Cambridge University announced that it was abandoning its plans for the centre. Although this is encouraging news, it does not signal that the project is dead and buried. The planning permission granted by the DPM is active for five years. This means, within that time frame, Cambridge University can come forward and declare that it intends, after all, to go ahead.

The University tried to characterise the decision not to proceed as a victory for moronic extremism over compassionate science that is on the brink of bringing relief to sufferers of Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, stroke, Huntington's and other neurological ailments.

Female monkey

"I have yet to hear a sufficiently compelling scientific argument that justifies the suffering inflicted on primates in medical research."
Dr Charlotte Uhlenbroek, leading primatologist and BBC science presenter

The reality is that the University was besieged on all sides:

  • It had failed to make its case at the planning inquiry and although the Deputy Prime Minister overruled his own inspector, that decision was now being challenged in the High Court.
  • More than 130 MPs had signed an Early Day Motion calling for all primate experiments to be banned - on the grounds that they cause suffering and were not medically useful.
  • The public had registered its opposition to monkey research through an Animal Aid-commissioned opinion poll (NOP, April 2003).
  • There was growing resistance within the university itself due to the controversial nature of the project and the massive financial burden it would place upon an institution already heavily in debt.
  • There were non-stop protests, petitioning and representations to the university and to the local council, most organised by local group X-CAPE (Cambridge Against Primate Experiments) and by SPEAC (Stop Primate Experiments At Cambridge).

All these elements added to the project's uncertainty and delay. This caused costs to spiral and opposition to grow both within and outside of the university.

An important additional factor was that Cambridge had recently appointed Professor Alison Richard as its vice chancellor. Professor Richard has studied primates throughout the world and for 20 years played an active role in the protection of monkeys and their natural habitat. She came from Harvard University where her reputation was for financial prudence. It is likely that, when seeing the kind of costly chaotic mess she had inherited relating to the primate centre proposal, she decided to dispose of it.

Baby marmoset in cage

"Everything we know about Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other specifically human neurological disorders has been learned from studying humans and their tissues."
Dr Ray Greek MD


Cambridge has an annual strategic deficit of around £9 million. The capital costs of the proposed centre were already £8 million over budget and the projected daily running costs were climbing rapidly. Even this disastrous situation could have been managed if the University teaching and student community were solidly behind the project. But they were not.

An important reason for internal support draining away was the deception practised by the University's governing Council on the University's 'parliament', known as Regent House. When it originally went to Regent House in 2001 for permission to proceed, the Council failed to declare that the new centre would be conducting experiments on monkeys. Approval was given by 'the parliament' on the nod and the consequent feelings of widespread bitterness and resentment came to be unmanageable.

Working together

The campaign against the Cambridge Primate Centre was initiated and kept alive through the difficult early months by a small core of local campaigners who came to be known as X-CAPE (www.x-cape.org.uk). They battled through the local council chambers, and protested peacefully across the city on church rooftops, outside and inside University buildings and on the streets of Cambridge.

Monkey in brain experiment

"Mutilating monkeys helps no-one and actually harms patients by misleading researchers and diverting them from more productive avenues of research, such as brain-scanning and clinical research."
Dr Ray Greek MD

Animal Aid is proud of the central role it has played in the Cambridge Primates Centre victory - starting in autumn 2000, soon after the University lodged its plans with the local council. The group brought together the major national and local anti-vivisection organisations for a strategy meeting at a crucial time.

The campaign was subsequently waged through the council chambers, through the media, at the public inquiry, the High Court, and by way of peaceful street protests. But the victory is the product of several national and local organisations working, if not always directly together, then focused upon the same objective.

Animal Aid and NAVS were coalition allies for the public inquiry and now for the High Court challenge. Expert scientific testimony was provided at the inquiry by Dr Ray Greek, Medical Director of Europeans For Medical Advancement. Expert planning evidence was submitted by Anthony Keen - who crucially bolstered and kept alive South Cambridgeshire District Council's own opposition to the proposal. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection submitted important evidence, based on the graphic undercover revelations of monkey brain experiments conducted at Cambridge University itself. Other key evidence came from the International Primate Protection League, while in latter months, SPEAC demonstrated the strength of grass roots opposition by organising some dramatic mass demonstrations in the city.

Planning inspector rules decisively against the centre

In granting Cambridge University planning permission, the Deputy Prime Minister dismissed the advice of his own Planning Inspector, who presided over the public inquiry that began in November 2002.

Monkey in hands

"Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases occur in humans and it is in human tissue that we will find the answers to these diseases."
Dr John Xuereb, Director of the Cambridge Brain Bank Laboratory

The Inspector concluded, in a lengthy report, that the University had failed to show that there was a 'national need' for the laboratory - as had been claimed - and recommended that the Cambridge be denied permission to proceed.

'On the basis of the technical input,' he wrote, 'I could not conclude that need in the national interest is demonstrated insofar as this pertains to the scientific/medical research and procedures undertaken by the University.

'In fact, if one accepts the premise that wherever possible research should not involve animals, it would be a stronger argument to say that it is nationally important to keep together and service the excellent and acknowledged research expertise in Cambridge to catch up on alternative forms of research to that employing animals.'

Stuart Nixon's report was as comprehensive a rejection of Cambridge's case as can be imagined. It is no exaggeration to state that his findings, in themselves, amount to an historic victory for opponents of animal experiments. Here was a neutral government inspector hearing evidence from a first rank British university, whose experts argued that its experiments on monkeys - supposedly the best of 'animal models' - produced medical benefits for people. Through Dr Ray Greek and a mass of other fully referenced scientific evidence, opponents successfully argued that no such benefits could be proven.

Click here to read the inspector's report in full >>

Our High Court challenge to the DPM argues that he acted unreasonably in dismissing his Inspector's recommendation; that his decision was a foregone conclusion - not least because, prior to the government-appointed inquiry that was supposedly meant to decide the issue, the Prime Minister himself made a very public statement insisting that the project must go ahead. We also maintain that the DPM was unreasonably influenced by Science Minister, biotech businessman and leading Labour Party donor, Lord Sainsbury, who also went on record prior to the inquiry arguing that the labs must be built.

Young primate suckling mother in the wild

The pain and futility of the proposed experiments

Cambridge and other British universities are already using primates for neurological research. The proposed centre would increase significantly the number of monkeys used - making it the largest such facility in all of Europe. In an attempt to understand human brain function and disease, marmosets and macaques would have been subjected to painful, invasive experiments. Their skulls would be opened and their brains deliberately damaged surgically or with corrosive chemicals. Post-operative symptoms would include seizures, vomiting and uncontrollable body movements. Often the animals would have electrodes implanted and be forced to perform repetitive tasks in experiments that could last weeks or months and involve food and water deprivation.

By conducting such experiments, valuable time and money would be diverted away from far more promising research. Sophisticated brain scanners, computer modelling and clinical studies in humans are much more likely to yield reliable, accurate results and lead to true medical progress.

For the latest news on this campaign see the Cambridge primate labs campaign index.

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