Feb. 7 (Bloomberg) -- When animal researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison dodged federal penalties for decapitating a cat named Double Trouble, their troubles weren’t over.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals triggered outrage in the animal-welfare community after publishing on its website photos of the dead cat used in a hearing experiment, which it obtained using the Wisconsin Public Records Law.
Under pressure last autumn from PETA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated the incident and found no violation of the federal Animal Welfare Act.
PETA then dug further and learned about nine other cats that died or suffered wounds and bacterial infections in the university’s labs. The nonprofit filed another complaint, triggering another investigation in November.
Animal-welfare groups are mounting aggressive campaigns to stop what they see as abusive behavior in research labs. PETA spent three years working to obtain photos of Double Trouble’s treatment under the Wisconsin law.
“These are curiosity experiments and aren’t applied research and produce no findings,” said Justin Goodman, director of PETA’s laboratory investigations department. “You can hurt the cats, you can kill them, and all you have to do is just explain why you’re doing it.”
Propelled in part by the nonprofits’ filing of complaints, last year the USDA handed out more than 1,500 citations at about 900 U.S. labs for violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, according to a study by Stop Animal Exploitation Now.
“You can tell that things are changing,” said Michael Budkie, SAEN’s executive director. “These labs are reacting to complaints. They know that they’re being watched, and they’re not happy about that.”
The USDA also has focused more attention on repeat offenders, said Michael Markarian, chief program and policy officer of the Humane Society of the U.S. The federal agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or Aphis, posts the names of violators on the web. SAEN tracks the names and posts some offenders on its website.
“From the secretary of agriculture down to the field inspectors, there is an unprecedented commitment to the enforcement of the AWA,” said Cathy Liss, president of the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute, by phone.
SAEN ramped up a campaign to expose Santa Cruz Biotechnology Inc.’s practices by filing a lawsuit on Jan. 17 under California’s animal-cruelty law. During a period of about six years, investigators from Aphis found starving and malnourished animals at Santa Cruz’s 200-acre facility, which houses 10,000 goats. The company researches and develops antibodies and animal health-care products.
“Many repeat violators haven’t been sanctioned by the USDA,” said Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal League Defense Fund, which filed the lawsuit for SAEN. “Many labs treat USDA fines as a very minor cost of doing business.”
One goat hobbled around with a broken leg for three days because a local veterinarian didn’t have time to treat the injury, according to the lawsuit. Another suffered from an untreated coyote bite. Santa Cruz Biotech said in an e-mail statement to Bloomberg News that it “disagrees” with the suit’s allegations and that it is “in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.”
Aphis investigators made several trips to Harvard University and its medical school last year, looking into the death of five monkeys. USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said he couldn’t comment on the status of the probe.
The Harvard investigations triggered a flurry of media attention last year, which led to the resignation of Frederick Wang, the interim director of the Harvard-affiliated New England Primate Research Center.
The complaint-filing strategy is sparking change at some labs. Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia agreed to stop using kittens for teaching its pediatric residents tracheal intubation, following pressure from the Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The PCRM filed a state public-records request last year and a complaint to the USDA, said John Pippin, the committee’s director of academic affairs.
Medical schools at the University of Vanderbilt, the University of Texas at Houston and Oklahoma University also said that they’ll stop using animals when training residents.
Eric Sandgren, director of Wisconsin University’s Research Animal Resources Center, said Double Trouble’s decapitation is standard procedure after an experiment. He said PETA’s claim that it failed to minimize its animals’ distress and pain required by the AWA is “unsubstantiated.”
“There are certain (medical) questions that only can be answered by looking at the whole animal,” Sandgren said. “In some of these studies, we can’t use people.”
Although the USDA announced yesterday that Wisconsin’s treatment of the nine cats didn’t raise noncompliance issues, PETA also awaits the outcome of a National Institutes of Health probe at the school. NIH is looking into whether Wisconsin’s treatment of animals violates its guidelines for grant recipients.
“Filing a USDA complaint is only one component of our broader campaign to end abusive experiments on animals,” Goodman said. “Just because the USDA doesn’t cite a lab doesn’t mean that a practice wasn’t cruel or unethical.”
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