PETA spy infiltrates U. animal-research labs, documents alleged suffering
Research » Group alleges staff, scientists 'consistently' violate animal-welfare rules.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A leading U.S. animal-rights organization placed an "undercover investigator" inside two University of Utah biomedical research facilities, where she used hidden cameras to record alleged mistreatment of research animals.

Representatives from the Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said they will file formal complaints Wednesday based on an eight-month probe in which their agent, identified only as LZ, gathered video, photos and log entries. She worked as an animal support technician at the U. from Feb. 12 to Oct. 29, and shot "hundreds of hours" of video inside U. labs, the group says.

University officials disputed the PETA investigator's interpretation of what she saw, arguing she does not understand animal research.

"None of the things she alleges are substantive," said Tom Parks, the U.'s vice president for research. "It's a remarkably banal list of ordinary events in an animal-care facility."

PETA officials will file the complaints with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds much of the U.'s research, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The group alleges scores of violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act and other medical research standards by U. scientists, animal technicians and research support staff.

The complaints, which involve monkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs, cows, pigs, dogs, cats and kittens, rats, mice and frogs, allege systemic violations at the U.'s Nora Eccles Harrison Cardiovascular Research & Training Institute and the Comparative Medicine Center. PETA also targets the U. oversight committee responsible for animal research policy, known as the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC.

PETA leaders contend their evidence reveals "flagrant disregard" for the animals' well-being and violations have become "business as usual" at the U.

"The ongoing lack of veterinary care means that animals who were already doomed to live and die in laboratories are suffering much more than they have to," said Kathy Guillermo, PETA's vice president over laboratory investigations.

The group plans to release video images it says show mice dead from neglect, dying mice bloated with ulcerated tumors, rabbits and cats with surgically implanted devices on their heads and spines, and U. lab staff, their faces blurred, casually describing deplorable conditions for the research animals.

"Betcha if you squeezed that, that would pop," a lab worker says, holding up a mouse with a bulging abdomen to the camera.

"How would you like to be sitting in a little square box with half your skin missing and your eyeball hanging out for a week, just shivering in trauma?" another mouse-lab worker says.

The PETA allegations also shed light on a little-known state "pound seizure'' law that requires government-supported animal shelters in Utah to hand over animals to authorized researchers upon request. PETA claims to have identified at least 30 dogs and six cats that left shelters for use in research.

Guillermo will lead a news conference Wednesday in Salt Lake City, unveiling PETA's allegations that U. employees:

» Failed to ensure that experiments minimized discomfort, distress and pain to the animals. In one case, up to 17 kittens from three litters died or were euthanized -- with no experiment data generated -- after injections to induce hydrocephalus.

» Discouraged the filing of health status reports to staff veterinarians -- "even when animals were clearly in distress.''

» Failed to provide adequate housing and management for animals that, in some instances, led to unnecessary stress, pain, injury or death.

» Failed to provide minimal enrichment for animals -- companionship for monkeys, balls for pigs, paper towels for mice -- to reduce emotional stress.

A U. researcher said the monkeys in question are not only housed with companions and plenty of toys, but they also enjoy their own Netflix account. A flat-screen television mounted in their room plays nature films and jungle sounds, said Bradley Greger, an assistant professor of bioengineering named in the PETA complaint.

PETA initiated its investigation of the U. in response to inquiries from "whistleblowers," according to Guillermo.

"I received calls from three people, who said they were in a position to know, saying there was terrible suffering," she said. She refused to divulge LZ's name, but said PETA has employed her regularly to go undercover at other labs. PETA makes no secret of its agenda to put a stop to the use of animals in research, even though the research community contends biomedical advances would slow without animal subjects.

Parks blasted PETA's use of a mole who obtained U. employment under false pretenses. As an employee, she failed in her obligation to report the alleged problems she witnessed to higher ups, he noted.

"She defrauded the university and if she believed the animals were mistreated, she did nothing to stop it," he said.

One of the U.'s most vocal critics defended PETA's tactics, given what he claimed was a lack of cooperation in providing documents to him concerning research using primates.

``They've put up obstacles wherever they can to keep the public from knowing what's going on in their labs,'' said Jeremy Beckham of Utah Primate Freedom. "I don't think the U. of U. denying our records requests has helped their cause at all. It's just confirmed that going through the system doesn't work.''

The U. might keep Beckham out of its labs, but it fully cooperates with monitoring agencies, Parks said. The Department of Agriculture and an international accrediting body regularly visit the university's research labs and have issued clean reports on their activities for the last five years, according to documents provided by the U.

"Research is the most heavily regulated use of animals in our society," Parks said. "We have four full-time vets who are the ultimate guarantors and experts on care of animals. We have extensive review of protocols by our IACUC, composed of animal-care staff and faculty. We monitor protocols with regular inspections. We require mandatory training of all personnel who work with animals. We follow the highest level of requirements for certification."

University researchers who receive federal funding are obliged to follow the Public Health Service's oft-revised "Guide to the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals." PETA's filing to NIH documents alleged deviations from this guide, while the Department of Agriculture complaint documents alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

PETA contends its allegations "represent a larger issue of failed oversight and institutional noncompliance" warranting immediate investigation by these federal agencies. If violations are substantiated, PETA insists, research grants should be revoked, the funding repaid, and offending employees disciplined and barred from handling animals.

bmaffly@sltrib.com

tsemerad@sltrib.com