Two animal rights groups, one national and one local, jointly petitioned a state circuit court on Tuesday to bring criminal animal cruelty charges against the UW-Madison for what the district attorney of Dane County determined were violations of state law involving decompression experiments on sheep.
"Animal experimenters should not be immune to cruelty to animals laws just because they torment animals inside a laboratory and call it 'science,'" says Kathy Guillermo of the national group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which filed the petition along with the Madison-based Alliance for Animals.
As Isthmus reported ("The Decompression of the Sheep," 8/27/09), the Alliance for Animals last year asked Dane County DA Brian Blanchard to look into sometimes fatal experiments conducted at the UW-Madison. The experiments, funded by the U.S. Navy, involve placing sheep in a hyperbaric pressure chamber to simulate what happens during a deep-sea dive, then monitoring them for signs of decompression sickness -- the bends.
The Alliance argued that a state law appears to make such experiments illegal, if indeed they result in fatalities. State Statute 951.025 reads, in its entirety: "Decompression prohibited: No person may kill an animal by means of decompression."
Blanchard concluded that the law provides no exception for scientific research and that the UW appears to be committing a civil violation subject to forfeitures every time that an experiment results in the death of a sheep due to decompression. According to his review:
"Three sheep out of 303 died in the hyperbaric chamber over the last ten years and during the same period an additional 23 sheep unexpectedly died within 24 hours of being removed from a chamber without having been humanely euthanized."
But Blanchard also decided that "it would not be a wise use of the resources of this office" to prosecute these violations, prompting Alliance co-director Lynn Pauly to declare, "The district attorney's decision ... reinforces what everyone already knows: Animal experimentation at the UW is above the law." ("UW Gets Pass on Sheep Deaths," 10/8/09).
The petition filed today (PDF) names faculty members Martin T. Cadwallader, William S. Mellon, Eric P. Sandgren, Richard R. Lane, and Janet Welter as "parties to a crime" and and Aleksey Sobakin, Marlowe Eldridge, David Pegelow, Michael Maroney and Avery Saunder as direct violators. It asks that the circuit court permit the filing of a complaint against the UW for these violations of the state's animal cruelty laws. State Statute 968.02(3) allows such actions in cases in which a violation has occurred and the district attorney has declined to prosecute.
Says Guillermo, "It's almost beyond belief that the chief prosecutor in the county feels it's not worth his time to stop UW-Madison from illegally killing sheep in painful, redundant experiments."
Eric Sandgren, director of the UW-Madison's Research Animal Resources Center, says that the UW initially interpreted the state law on decompression as prohibiting this as a method of animal euthanasia. But as soon as it became aware that Blanchard believed the law also applied to incidental deaths in decompression experiments, "we stopped doing those studies and are not going to resume doing them until this issue is resolved."
One long-term solution, says Sandgren, may be to seek a change in the law. More immediately, UW investigators have submitted a protocol that would allow the remote monitoring of animals inside a hyperbaric chamber "so animals would not die expectedly."
The fact that animals sometimes die, says Sandgren, is "the only legal problem" with this research. He concedes that the experiments might still involve pain, which is appropriately treated. "I do not believe there is cruelty here."
Beyond that, Sandgren says the experiments have provided valuable information for the Navy and others looking to treat decompression sickness: "We believe it's important research and that it would be a shame to abandon it."