“Vivisection is scientific fraud” screeched the placard placed next to three elderly ladies sat on deck chairs. Attached to the fence beside them were pictures of caged monkeys and what appeared to be a dead dog. This was the scene that greeted passersby and staff and visitors to Auckland Hospital and the Medical School on Friday morning. I find protesters like these quite fascinating and am always interested to find out what they believe about the use of animals in scientific research. By the time I went to have a chat with them, a little drizzle meant only one lady remained, clutching another picture of a monkey and handing out leaflets produced by the NZ Anti-Vivisection Society.

“Do you know what they do in the basement of that building?” she whispered to me, pointing over at the university campus. Being a member of the Animal Ethics Committee (AEC), it turns out I do. The AEC is responsible for approving all research procedures carried out using animals, as well as regularly inspecting facilities. But I was curious what the protester believed. “Terrible, terrible suffering, and murder” she says. She quoted the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee’s (NAEAC) figure of 301,964 animals used in scientific research in NZ in 2012.

I’m not surprised to find that the protester is cherry-picking data. Actually, those 301,964 animals were used for research, testing and teaching (RTT). Less than a third of those animals were used for biological or medical research, while a little more than a third were used for veterinary research. Over 80% of the animals were exposed to manipulations which had no, virtually no, or little impact on the animals’ welfare. To put this in context, breeding is considered a manipulation. More than 70% of the animals were returned to their normal environment afterwards. In other words, not “murdered”. Can you guess what the most used animal was for RTT in New Zealand in 2012? Cattle. They made up over half of those 301,964 animals. I can honestly say there are no cows in the basement of the med school. Given the protester was quoting NAEAC’s report at me, I asked her if she knew that no monkeys were used in RTT in NZ. “Yes”, she says. So isn’t it misleading to be displaying pictures of monkeys, I ask? “A little” she concedes. Might people passing by think that monkeys are being used in scientific research in NZ, I ask? “Maybe” she says. So she is not only cherry-picking but being downright dishonest too.

“That animals are made to suffer” was the protester’s main objection to the use of animals in research. I asked her if she has heard of the 3Rs* – replacement, refinement and reduction. These are the ethical and legal basis on which animals are used in research, teaching and testing in New Zealand and many other countries around the world. Animals should be replaced with an alternative if possible, but where not possible, the numbers used should be the minimum necessary, and procedures should be refined to cause minimal suffering. In reality, this means using things like pain killers to alleviate any suffering. “Nonsense” she snorts.

During our chat, I ask the protester whether she takes any medicines when she is ill and the conversation moves in an unexpected direction. I find out she believes the only causes of cancer are alcohol, smoking and doctors, and that there is no such thing as infection (“the bugs are just coming to clear up our mess”). Here I am on fairly strong ground, so I tell her I’m a microbiologist studying nasty microbes, and that many of them are not “clearing up our mess” but have entire systems devised to overcome our immune system and cause damage. “Nonsense” she snorts again.

I know this is not a popular view, but I would love to see universities being proactive when faced with protesters like this – perhaps putting up their own placards and talking to passersby about the benefits of research and the lengths scientists go to to minimise suffering. It is clear that we can’t change the minds of the die-hard protesters, especially those that believe you can avoid cancer by not visiting the doctor and that infectious diseases are a myth**. But I believe most people are curious and will listen to both sides of the story. By remaining in our ivory towers we are missing opportunities to engage with the people who stop and talk to the protesters, and those who see their placards. Instead we create the impression we have something to hide. We don’t.

*Not reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic, or reduce, recycle, reuse…

**I am not saying for a minute that all anti-vivisectionists are as crazy (in my opinion) as the lady I spoke to.