Several leading researchers at the University of Utah are upset with the school's decision to halt its use of shelter animals in experiments, citing higher costs, damage to medical progress and the appearance of caving in to animal-rights activists.
Key players in U. research are scheduled to meet Friday with top administrators to discuss the policy change, which school officials say was made in light of continued and intense pressure activists brought to bear on a Utah County shelter that, until January, was the sole provider of abandoned dogs and cats to U. labs.
Thomas Parks, U. vice president for research, confirmed the policy shift this week, saying he hoped it would end a barrage of hostile e-mails, phone calls, on-site protests and other tactics directed at the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter in Lindon.
The campaign, marshaled by the Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, contended the practice was cruel and went contrary to the shelter's mission as a sanctuary.
The shelter sold about 100 strays and discarded pets to U. labs per year for medical research. About 40 percent of the animals, all otherwise slated for euthanization at the shelter, survived lab research and went up for adoption.
Brad Greger, a prominent U. researcher in the field of nerve-activated prosthesis, is among several who called the school's decision unfortunate for animals and humans alike.
"What really drives me most crazy about this is that it results in more animals being euthanized,'' Greger said Thursday. "Everybody, including the animal-rights groups, is forced into a situation we don't want. It's just dumb.''
He and other researchers said they believe they had not been adequately consulted before the policy change, though Greger called the oversight "understandable,'' given the number of scientists involved.
When the U. quietly stopped obtaining animals from the Lindon facility in mid-January, several researchers sent an informal survey to Salt Lake Valley shelters to explore the possibility of resuming the sales, but met with a mixed reception from shelter directors.
"My work is completely halted,'' said one of the researchers, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from animal-rights activists. "Just because PETA is pressuring people doesn't mean we should make a policy that is unreasonable and illogical. This is a real tragedy.''
The researcher and others warned that the policy shift also risked energizing animal-rights groups in their efforts to shut down all animal-based medical research, at the U. and other campuses.
At least five U. medical investigators, including Greger, now will be forced to use animals bred for labs, which by some estimates will boost costs as much as fivefold. Parks said the U. has set aside funds to help with the conversion until research grant budgets catch up with the new costs.
Parks acknowledged that researchers hadn't been fully consulted on the change, but defended the new policy as being in the best interest of the shelter and the U.
"We continue to have a strong stand in favor of animal research, and this policy doesn't change that,'' Parks said. "We felt this was necessary to protect public confidence in the humane, proper and valuable use of animals in research.''
Until a year ago, Utah was one of only two states mandating that shelters provide animals for university research upon request. State lawmakers made the sales voluntary last March, although most shelters have refused to participate for most of the past decade.