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SCIENCE

How UW-Madison lab cats became the symbols for PETA's campaign against animal research

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Credit:Jeff Miller / UW-Madison
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Deep inside a dimly lit campus laboratory, a 13-year-old calico cat stares ahead. Her tail twitches back and forth slowly. She appears relaxed but focused. Orange, white and black spots splotch her coat, and her white paws stand out against the charcoal-colored surface.

Lined with egg-carton foam, the room is protected from light and sound. Even with the distraction of a researcher and observer, Broc looks forward and adjusts her head to the perfect position -- something she's been conditioned to do. Once she's set, a sound goes off. Broc must identify whether the sound comes from the speaker to the left, the right or straight ahead. If she walks in the correct direction to the sound, she is rewarded with a treat. If wrong, she has to start over.

Broc is a lab cat. Her sole purpose is to help researchers collect data. This particular experiment looks at how humans process sound. Since arriving at the lab of UW professor Tom Yin, Broc has provided more than a decade's worth of data.

Yin's lab has been under fire since People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) submitted an open records request to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2009. The request led to two investigations by the United States Department of Agriculture and a probe by the National Institutes of Health's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. While the case was pending, all invasive experiments in the lab were suspended.

PETA alleged "egregious violations" of the Animal Welfare Act -- a federal law monitored by the USDA that regulates the treatment of animals in research and provides mandatory standards. Each investigation concluded that "No noncompliant items were identified," and Yin got the green light to continue his research.

But the allegations -- and subsequent publication of photos of one of Yin's lab cats, named Double Trouble -- brought widespread condemnation from critics around the world. And the controversy continues.

PETA recently purchased large, graphic ads on 130 Madison Metro buses with images of Double Trouble and the phrase "I Am Not Lab Equipment! End UW Cat Experiments." The organization also submitted another open records request to UW-Madison for any active protocol, veterinary reports, daily care logs, necropsy reports and surgery reports related to Yin's research. It asked for any photographic or video records related to the use of cats in sound localization experiments since Dec. 4, 2012.

Yin fears this pressure from PETA will never end. "PETA will not quit. They have made four open records requests, and each is just a different time window with different cats they're looking at."

Eric Sandgren, director of UW-Madison's Research Animal Resource Center, says what is happening to Yin is a case study in the outsized power of activist groups like PETA.

"Underpinning this whole story is this tremendous pressure that PETA put on the regulatory agencies and UW-Madison," he says. PETA "besmirched" the UW's reputation, he adds, and "did so in a way that had no basis of fact."

"It's not a level playing field," Sandgren says. "We didn't have access to all the charges against us, and we spent hundreds of hours working with the people that came in from the outside to prove to them we had done things correctly."

Detecting sound

Yin, interim chair of the Department of Neuroscience, has been researching the human auditory system at UW-Madison for more than 35 years. With a technique called sound localization, he uses cats to try to understand how the brain detects sound.

"If you want to cure or try to alleviate a problem, you've got to know the basics," he says. "You have to understand why it's a problem, and that's what basic research does."

Yin has published 82 papers since 1973 and been cited in other scholarship more than 5,000 times. While Yin's research may not directly cure illnesses or improve technology, his findings act as building blocks for other scientists who study hearing loss.

For the past decade, Yin's lab has focused on behavioral studies using cats. His experiments have involved 18 cats, seven of which are still in training. By implanting small, twisted wire coils on the top of the cats' heads or around one or both eyeballs, Yin says researchers are able to measure minuscule movements that, in turn, help determine how well the cats can locate sound.

"The use of a coil for measuring eye movements has become standard for neurophysiological studies of the oculomotor system [a system of nerves responsible for eyeball and eyelid movement]," according to Yin's 2008 Animal Care and Use Protocol.

"In order for us to know where a sound comes from we have to rely on very subtle differences between the sounds to the two ears," Yin explains. "So if something is off to my left, sound will reach my left ear slightly before it reaches my right ear, and it'll be slightly louder to my left ear than it is to my right ear."

Humans, cats and other animals with similar auditory systems are able to detect minute differences in the frequency and volume of sounds, but what makes us able to detect such differences? That's what Yin is trying to find out.

Head caps

In 2008 Yin partnered with UW professor Ruth Litovsky from the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders to do a pilot study on cochlear implants, electronic devices that restore a person's ability to hear. Their goal was to determine if two cochlear implants are better than one.

To answer this question, Yin and Litovsky planned to use cats already trained to detect sounds in behavioral studies, permanently deafen them with an injection of neomycin sulfate -- an antibiotic with deafening side effects -- and insert cochlear implants to see if they would still be able to determine sound location.

Neither Yin nor Litovsky had ever done this surgery on a cat. They reached out to Robert Shepherd, director of the Bionics Institute and one of the world's leading experts on cochlear implants, to learn how to do the procedure. Shepherd, who had experience inserting cochlear implants into kittens, flew to Madison from Melbourne, Australia, and walked Yin and Litovsky through the procedure.

While Shepherd did the surgery on Double Trouble, the surgical team -- which included a UW veterinarian -- took a series of photos, mapping out each step of the procedure so they could re-create it once Shepherd returned home. These photos, intended for lab use only, would soon become PETA's main ammunition in its campaign to end cat research at UW. They show Double Trouble outfitted with a head cap and a large stainless steel contraption called a head post that is required to keep the cat's head still during surgery. The images of Double Trouble undergoing the cochlear implant procedure are indeed terrifying.

Yin says head caps are necessary for all cats involved in his research because the "electrical connectors to the eye and head coils are embedded in the cement that makes up the head cap." They also have a head post, adds Yin, that allows researchers to "clamp the head stationary for cleaning purposes or when we want the cat to work with its head fixed." The cats in the behavioral studies Yin does on a daily basis, however, are mobile, so head posts are not regularly used.

After Shepherd's visit, Yin and Litovsky performed cochlear implant surgery on one other cat. But, like many pilot studies, the cochlear experiment did not work. Unable to get convincing data that the cats could use the implants to locate sound, the research team reassessed the experiment in 2009 and put it on the back burner. Afterwards, both cats, deaf from the experiment, were euthanized.

On PETA's radar

Jeremy Beckham, research project manager in the laboratory investigations department of PETA, says the organization has had sound localization experiments on its radar for quite some time.

"The UW cat experiment is one of the most invasive experiments happening anywhere in the country," Beckham says. "The cats in the lab are sometimes intentionally deafened. They implant electrical devices in their inner ear, in their brain, stitch a coil to their eye. Their bodies are being mutilated in a number of different ways. Many of the cats are basically wasting away. They're getting sick, they're having to be euthanized. It's a real travesty."

Yin rejects Beckham's claims and insists that, based on his cats' behavior, they are comfortable.

"Once they've gone through the surgery, which is all done under deep anesthesia, they don't feel any pain during the surgery. After that's over, they are willing to work in our training."

Whether a captive animal can be deemed "willing" to participate in research experimentation is arguable, but the question of whether the cats experience pain, discomfort and other ills is purportedly addressed in the protocols -- a requirement each lab must complete before an experiment begins.

The 2008 protocol for both the behavioral studies and the cochlear implant studies states that the cats are under anesthesia during surgeries and given a painkiller while sedated and during the recovery period.

Each cat that undergoes any procedure in Yin's lab is also given antibiotics. While the lab takes infection into account, the cats are still at risk. The eye coils, head coils and head caps used in the behavioral experiments create an open wound, and although the lab monitors and cleans entry points, infections still occur.

According to Beckham, "Every cat in the lab has suffered from bacterial infections."

But Sandgren says that is not true. Among the seven cats that are still active in Yin's lab -- which have a combined 31 years of service -- the rate of infection "averaged out to be one infection every 3.9 years," says Sandgren. Of these cats, the one with the most infections got one every two years; four had none.

Photos

In its 2009 open records request to Yin's lab, PETA asked for any document, photo or video related to the use of cats in eye movement experiments. In response, UW-Madison released more than 1,000 pages of daily care logs, surgical logs and veterinary records. The only thing missing were photos.

"UW claimed that they were proprietary, specifically that the UW experimenter had partnered with a research team from another institution, and the people that showed them [how to conduct the experiment] made them promise to keep the procedure secret," says Beckham.

According to Yin that promise was made over a drink.

"I didn't know what to do when I got the request from PETA because legally you're supposed to comply, but Rob [Shepherd] had informally, over a beer as I remember, said, 'I'd prefer you not describe the surgery to others,' and of course I said, 'Sure, no problem.' When the request came, I said I wasn't going to talk about how the surgery was done, and so we didn't release [the photos] to PETA."

Believing UW-Madison officials were trying to protect themselves from backlash over the invasive experiments, PETA filed a lawsuit in April 2010 charging the UW with multiple violations of the Wisconsin open records law.

For the next two years PETA and the university played a legal game of tug-of-war. Fed up with UW's refusal to release the photos, Beckham decided to do his own investigation. Posing as a student from Yin's lab, Beckham contacted the researchers in Australia to see if the information was indeed secret. He discovered that the surgical technique had been published and that the process was not proprietary. After getting written, email confirmation that the study was open information, PETA finally had the proof it needed to get the photos.

The UW's legal team decided to settle, eventually releasing 37 photos of the cochlear implant surgery to PETA in June 2012.

It was then that Double Trouble became the face of PETA's campaign against animal research. After receiving the photos, the group sent out fliers, postcards and emails, encouraging supporters to sign a petition to end Yin's experiments.

Sandgren says PETA deliberately waited for the photos, knowing they would be a fundraising boon and a public relations nightmare for the university.

"The pictures are worth so much more than words," he says. "I can't make [PETA] not operate that way, and boy, if you measure success by money, they have succeeded. This is a home run for them. It just so happens it's all false."

The investigations

A few months after receiving the photos, PETA filed a complaint with the USDA, asking the agency to investigate Yin's lab for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. In response to the complaint of Sept. 12, 2012, the USDA conducted its first three-day site visit that fall.

PETA claimed Yin's lab had violated the act by not minimizing pain during procedures and by not providing an appropriate rationale for using animals or for the number of animals used. The group also charged the lab violated the act by administering improper anesthesia during a surgery involving Double Trouble, by not considering alternatives to animal use, by failing to observe the cats' well-being on a daily basis, and by not ensuring that those involved in animal care, treatment and use were properly trained.

The initial USDA Inspection Report, however, found "No non-complaint items identified during this inspection."

Undeterred, PETA submitted a second set of charges, prompting a second USDA investigation and a three-day site visit in December 2012.

The second Inspection Report found that a cat had sustained a burn during a 2012 procedure, but that the injury had been treated and "corrective procedures" put in place to prevent similar injuries. Again, the lab was not cited for any of the violations alleged by PETA.

"The USDA came and they looked point by point at everything, and we got zero citations," says Sandgren. "In other words, they agreed with us."

Unprecedented suspension

PETA also sent a complaint to the National Institutes of Health's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, prompting the third investigation of Yin's lab.

Prior to their site visit, OLAW and the NIH's National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders -- the organization that funds Yin's work -- suspended all new invasive experiments in Yin's lab involving cats in "the interest of animal welfare." During the suspension, which started April 10, 2013, Yin was unable to do any new surgeries but was allowed to continue behavioral studies on the cats that had undergone surgeries prior to the suspension.

Both Yin and Sandgren blame the suspension on the pressure PETA put on the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. "[PETA] sent more than 200,000 emails to my funding agency," says Yin.

According to Sandgren, suspending a program before an investigation is unprecedented. "I don't think it was particularly fair that they did it that way," he says. "They suspended it before they had any evidence that there was a problem."

The director of the institute's division of compliance oversight, an NIH veterinarian and expert in head cap implants, and a senior veterinarian from the USDA conducted the third and final site visit of Yin's lab on April 17-18, 2013.

Together they leafed through years of records; examined the cages, lab and recording room; reviewed study techniques; and witnessed the cats performing behavioral exercises.

After completing the investigation, OLAW released a final report on Sept. 25, 2013, stating, "All seven cats were found to be in excellent clinical condition, namely having good body condition, good hair coats, were very well socialized with the other cats as well as people, and exhibited normal behavior."

The investigation revealed that "no cats showed lesions or signs of pain, distress, or adverse responses during handling, transport, examination, or during experiential trials."

The report even stated that one of the cats was a "willing participant": "Because the cats are handled so frequently, they are well adapted to people and appear to willingly perform their tasks, such that they often continue the activity after the recording is completed."

OLAW did recommend some changes, however, including refining sanitation procedures and altering how the lab tracks the cause of infections. It also directed that the lab keep abreast of new technology and identify why cats are the only acceptable models for the study. Yin's lab adjusted its protocol, responding to and accepting each of OLAW's recommendations.

According to Yin, the recommendations were something OLAW had to do for political reasons. "They had to do something in response to the public uproar. They couldn't come in and say nothing."

Once the changes were made, OLAW lifted the suspension. Yin's lab was free to continue invasive experiments, although it has done no procedures since the suspension was lifted.

Disappointed, Beckham criticizes the lack of state and federal laws protecting research animals.

"All the abuse I've talked about is probably perfectly legal, which is just horrible," he says. "There is no such thing as cruelty to an animal if that animal is in a lab. There is nowhere to turn to with regards to state law. We're left with animals having no protection."

Common ground

For Sandgren, the key to finding common ground between activists and scientists is to create open dialogue. That's a goal he has nurtured through the UW-Madison Forum on Animal Research Ethics (FARE), established in 2010 to increase the transparency of animal research on campus.

Sandgren says PETA's campaign has affected not just Yin, but other scientists on campus.

"Animal researchers are less willing to participate in FARE or any similar public event in the face of PETA's misleading public campaign," he says. "Why talk when your words will just be taken out of context and used against you?"

Sandgren says he received a razor blade in the mail recently, something that hasn't happened to a UW researcher in a long time. "The letter inside said 'Doctor Sandgren, UW School of Veterinary Torture -- Use this razor blade to slit your wrists.'

"I work with activists, I talk with activists and I try and have this dialogue, acknowledging the things we have in common," he says. "It's just sad when it comes to this."

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