National Anti-vivisection Society


National Antivisection Society

The history of the NAVS

. Updated: 24 July 2012

The National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) is the world’s first organisation campaigning against animal experiments having been founded in 1875 by Miss Frances Power Cobbe, a great humanitarian who published many leaflets and articles opposing animal experiments, and gathered many notable people of the day to support our cause.

The Society was formed on 2 December 1875 in Victoria Street, London, under the name of the Victoria Street Society.

At the time there were about 300 experiments on animals each year. Public opposition to vivisection led the Government to appoint the First Royal Commission on Vivisection in July 1875; it reported its findings on 8 January 1876, recommending that special legislation be enacted to control vivisection. This led to the infamous, but well named, Cruelty to Animals Act 1876, which reached the statute book on 15 August 1876. This Act remained in force for 110 years, until it was replaced by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.

The Cruelty to Animals Act 1876 legalised vivisection, as well as providing total secrecy to the vivisectors and to the laboratories, with no public accountability. The Home Office awarded licences to vivisectors in secret, the locations of laboratories were secret. No access was allowed, for any reason - whether Member of Parliament, media, public, or local authority - all were barred. And so, the numbers of animals used as well as the number of licences awarded rose year on year for a century, protected by successive governments and a silent scientific community.

However, opposition to vivisection also increased, and the Victoria Street Society grew in strength and influence and after a few years changed its name to the National Anti-Vivisection Society (6 October 1897).


The NAVS’ founder Miss Frances Power Cobbe

From the outset the Victoria Street Society had demanded the total abolition of vivisection and whilst this has always been, and remains the prime objective of the Society, at a Council meeting on 9 February 1898 the following resolution was passed:-

"The Council affirms that, while the demand for the total abolition of vivisection will ever remain the ultimate object of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, the Society is not thereby precluded from making efforts in Parliament for lesser measures, having for its object the saving of animals from scientific torture."

The resolution was carried by 29 votes to 23. Miss Cobbe did not approve of this as she did not want the Society to promote any measure short of abolition. As a result, after the Resolution was passed, Miss Cobbe left the NAVS and formed the BUAV as an immediate total abolitionist society.

This resolution of 1898 has remained the policy of the NAVS until this day.

(Our Council today, and the supporters of the NAVS, believe that vivisection will be abolished, but prefer to take a realistic view that this will be done step by step. Our campaigns over the years have borne this out, with bans in recent years on the use of animals in cosmetics testing, and other specific types of tests being dropped.)


Miss E.A.L. Lind-af-Hageby and Lord Dowding in 1963

In 1902, two anti-vivisectionists, Leisa Schartau and Louise Lind-af-Hageby, enrolled as students to expose vivisection at the University of London. Their chilling findings of conscious animals being tortured in futile experiments and demonstrations for students were published the following year in the book, ‘The Shambles of Science’, the NAVS became involved in a legal battle over our involvement in publishing the findings, and the case of a little brown terrier dog became the focus of pitched battles in London between anti-vivisectionists and medical students, over a statue erected in memory of the dog (see The little brown dog).

At the end of the 20th century, the modern NAVS would revive such feats with our undercover investigations of animal laboratories - this time around using sophisticated technology to collect photographs and video on hidden cameras.

In 1906, a statue was erected in Battersea Park of a small brown terrier dog, one of the animals which featured in the journals of the undercover investigators, as he was vivisected at the University of London. The inscription on the statue read:
"In memory of the Brown Terrier Dog done to death in the laboratories of University College in February 1903, after having endured vivisection extending over more than two months and having been handed from one vivisector to another till death came to his release. Also in memory of the 232 dogs vivisected at the same place during the year 1902. Men and women of England, how long shall these things be?"

The statue became the target of animal researchers and London University medical students; students rioted at the site; anti-vivisectionists defended their statue; the elderly Frances Power Cobbe was attacked in her office. After years of conflict, the statue mysteriously disappeared in 1910.
The NAVS and others erected a new statue with the same inscription in 1985, again in Battersea Park.

In 1906 the Government appointed the Second Royal Commission on Vivisection.

This Second Royal Commission heard a great deal of evidence from the NAVS and other interested parties. It published its findings in 1912, recommending an increase in the numbers of Home Office Inspectors; further limitations with regard to the use of curare (paralysing drug which does not deaden pain, but can heighten it); stricter provisions as to the definition and practice of pithing; additional restrictions regulating the painless destruction of animals which show signs of suffering after experimentation; a change in the method of selecting, and in the constitution of, the advisory body of the Secretary of State*; and keeping of special records by vivisectors.

(*This body, under the new 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, is called the Animal Procedures Committee).

This was a long way from abolition; it did not deal with the issue of secrecy and accountability; it left the vivisection community protected from outside control and scrutiny. Although each successive Home Secretary attached ‘pain conditions’ to all experiments, the ‘conditions’ were so worded that they afforded no protection to the animals whatsoever.

By the end of the Second World War, animal experiments had reached over one million a year.

During the first half of the 20th century, the NAVS promoted many bills in Parliament to abolish or restrict animal experimentation, without success. Bills and measures were also campaigned for, to restrict import and export of laboratory animals, breeding, and supply. None were successful.

Successive Governments were, effectively, intimated by an arrogant and determined scientific community, protected as it was (and still is) by a legal cloak of secrecy, determined to resist all outside controls or accountability. The Home Office Inspectorate, responsible for administering licences and recommending licensees to the Home Secretary, were (and still remain), mostly made up of those with links with the community they were licensing.

The NAVS has a strong history of using scientific arguments against the use of animals in experiments. This was exemplified in the 1960s by NAVS scientific advisor, Dr M. Beddow Bayly and his books such as ‘The Futility of Experiments on Living Animals’ and ‘Clinical Medical Discoveries’.

In 1963, with animal experiments running into millions each year and a public deprived of information on the issue, the Government set up a ‘Departmental Committee on Experiments on Living Animals’ to consider the use of animals in research, and whether any changes in legislation were necessary.

In 1965 the Littlewood Committee, as it is known, published 83 recommendations, and although none of the recommendations were designed to bring an end to animal experiments, no legislation was passed to put any of them into effect anyway.

Throughout the 20th Century, the NAVS lobbied government and drafted various Bills against a seemingly unstoppable rise in animal experiments ‘reaching almost 6 million per year in the UK by the 1970s’. When the trade in monkeys for use in vaccine tests devastated India’s population of rhesus macaques, NAVS representatives went to India and successfully lobbied for a ban on the export of these animals, which was introduced in 1978.

In 1973, the NAVS, now based in Harley Street, London, sought a new strategy and founded the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research. The Fund was named after Lord Dowding, the Air Chief Marshal who played a such a vital role during the Battle of Britain. After the war, Lord Dowding became President of the NAVS and in the House of Lords made many impassioned speeches on animal experiments. His wife Lady Dowding was also an NAVS Council member (later becoming President after her husband’s death).

This new strategy was to make positive steps to replace the use of animals in research, and to show that animal research is not necessary for medical and scientific progress. Another aim would be to encourage, by publicity and publications, research without the use of animals. The Lord Dowding Fund has gone from strength to strength and continues today, to be responsible for ground breaking medical and scientific research that does not involve animals. Tens of thousands of animals have been saved, through the introduction of techniques and technology funded by the Lord Dowding Fund.

In 1979, the NAVS established World Day for Laboratory Animals (also referred to as Lab Animal Day) on April 24th - Lord Dowding’s birthday. This international day of commemoration is recognised by the United Nations, and is now marked annually by anti-vivisectionists on every continent.

In 1983, the Government announced it would replace the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876 and published a White Paper following representations from the NAVS and others. The NAVS was bitterly disappointed with the weakness of the proposals. However, the Society decided to take a very reasonable approach to the issue, realising that abolition was not achievable. Thus, a list of key experiments and uses of animals was put together and a campaign undertaken to try to move the Government on a few areas where we already had overwhelming public support.

Together with other groups, the NAVS campaigned for a ban on the use of animals in tests for cosmetics, tobacco, alcohol products; warfare experiments; psychological and behavioural tests; a ban on the LD50 poisoning test and the Draize eye irritancy test, as well as other measures in relation to the administration of the legislation (such as reform of the Home Secretary’s Advisory Committee).

After a hard fought campaign for improved legislation, the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act received Royal Assent on 20 May 1986.

Not one single animal experiment would be banned. Three new tiers of licensing were introduced; levels of pain were to be calibrated and linked to licences and a cost-benefit analysis (cost in pain and suffering to the animal versus perceived benefits to commerce, industry, or humans). No fundamental changes were made to the way the legislation would be administered: the Home Office Inspectorate would continue to meet vivisectors in secret, award licences in secret, there would be no public accountability. The Home Secretary’s Advisory Committee under the old 1876 Act was dominated by vivisectors and vivisection industry interests such as animal and equipment suppliers; the new Animal Procedures Committee would have the same make-up. Cruel animal experiments would now be given different terminology the more publicly-acceptable ‘procedures’ was introduced.

Branded at the time as a ‘Vivisectors’ Charter’, over a decade in operation has seen the dreadful failings of the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act cruelly exposed.

Despite the very reasonable approach taken by the NAVS, the Government had chosen to ignore the enormous public concern on this issue, and our concerted attempts to take a practical approach.

The setback of the 1986 Act led to a major rethink at the NAVS and a drive to become a stronger voice for animals. It was also time to take vivisectionists on head-on, on the issue of the use of animals in medical research. A revitalised NAVS, with new Director Jan Creamer would in the coming years pull together many of the Society’s historic strengths: producing detailed scientific reports highlighting the futility of vivisection; lobbying in Parliament; organising the biggest rallies against vivisection the world has ever seen; developing the Lord Dowding Fund and even adding two new bodies to the group - the Animal Defenders and Animal+World Show; putting NAVS Field Officers undercover inside the animal laboratories.

In 1990 the fast-expanding Society had long outgrown its premises in Harley Street, and so moved to larger premises in Goldhawk Road, London, and in 2006 NAVS moved to Millbank Tower, London, where where it remains today.

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