After surviving a legal scare a little more than a year ago and then helping convince the Legislature to exempt researchers from state animal cruelty statutes, UW-Madison is taking steps to potentially begin a new series of decompression sickness studies using sheep.
“We are certainly alarmed about this development, although I can’t say we’re surprised,” says Rick Bogle, an outspoken critic of the university’s animal research projects and the co-director of the Madison-based Alliance for Animals.
Eric Sandgren, who oversees animal research at UW-Madison, says that although plans to resume the studies are far from finalized, it would be “irresponsible not to consider their resumption” due to a range of “valuable information” past university research on this topic has produced.
“For over three decades, diving physiology and submarine rescue studies have been productive and valued research programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” says Sandgren, who directs the university’s Research Animal Resource Center.
“A goal of the research is to develop protective accelerated decompression strategies for submarine escape and rescue operations. Decompression tables derived from Wisconsin research are used worldwide and provide vital information for decompression injury risk prediction and management.”
Local controversy over this research reached a peak in 2010 when animal rights groups convinced a judge to appoint a special prosecutor to decide whether nine UW-Madison scientists and officials should be criminally charged under a Wisconsin statute that makes it illegal to kill animals by decompression. The researchers used sheep to examine what’s commonly called “the bends,” and multiple animals died in the studies, which were funded by the Navy.
Madison attorney David Geier, the special prosecutor, ultimately determined in May 2011 that university employees did not violate the law -- although he ripped university officials in his report for not having a better system in place for making scientists aware of pertinent state and federal laws.
The legal action by animal rights groups put a significant scare into the university's animal research enterprise, which currently features about 1,100 animal care and use protocols, according to Sandgren. He notes that about 20 percent -- or $200 million -- of the university’s roughly $1 billion in research awards are associated with animal studies.
In an effort to better protect this research, university officials helped push for a provision that was slipped into Wisconsin's 2011-13 biennial budget that exempts scientists from state law prohibiting crimes against animals as long as they follow protocol approved by an educational or research institution that already must follow federal animal welfare laws. The exemption also covers “bona fide scientific research” involving species unregulated by federal law.
“After the court decided not to prosecute the university, then it was able to go to the Legislature and have the law changed and now it’s back to business-as-usual,” says Bogle. “The researchers now have a blanket exemption from state law as long as it’s an approved thing the university wants to do.”
Sandgren says the university currently is “in the early stages of discussing whether to re-initiate the submarine rescue studies using sheep.” A protocol describing the proposed work was initially reviewed July 9 by the Graduate School’s Animal Care and Use Committee, which must sign off on any such experiments.
However, that oversight body has not yet given the green light to the protocol, and is asking for more details on how animals will be monitored by veterinarians. Sandgren says the university is in the process of designing and updating an area for these studies at UW-Madison’s Biotron facility, and any research wouldn’t begin until renovations are completed and the animal care committee inspects and approves the space.
Finally, research funding for such a project also would have to be secured, although it likely would come from the Navy.
The sheep decompression sickness experiments started gaining public attention in August 2009 when the Alliance for Animals lodged a complaint against UW-Madison researchers who used sheep in sometimes fatal decompression experiments. Then-District Attorney Brian Blanchard agreed the studies violated a Wisconsin law against killing animals by decompression, but he refused to prosecute, saying it was not a wise use of resources.
The Alliance for Animals and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) then filed a petition in March 2010 asking that criminal charges be brought against five UW-Madison officials and several researchers for violating the law when 26 sheep died as a result of the Navy-funded experiments on decompression sickness that use a hyperbaric chamber, which regulates air pressure.
Dane County Circuit Judge Amy Smith agreed there was probable cause to believe that some intentionally or negligently violated the law, and assigned Geier to the case as a special prosecutor in June of that year. He was tasked with deciding whether animal cruelty charges should be filed.
Nearly a year later he issued a report stating that university employees did not violate state laws. However, he did question the value of conducting future decompression research using sheep, noting that the Navy had pulled its grant from UW-Madison and that “in reviewing the more recent literature, it appears that the efficacy of these types of studies is now in question.”
Bogle’s read on the report was that part of the reason Geier didn’t press for charges is the fact that the university stopped its research back in 2009 when it first came under review and that the Navy stopped paying for the research.
But Geier said this week that’s not the reason he did not recommend filing a criminal complaint and the court decided no further action was necessary.
“I looked at the law,” Geier said this week. “I did note in my report that the university had stopped the research, but I didn’t take that one way or the other. Somebody could argue that by stopping the studies, that’s an admission on the university’s part that they’re doing something wrong. But I talked to a lot of people on this thing, and the university’s lawyers felt that it was prudent that until this thing got resolved they should stop the research. I came to my decision by strictly looking at what the statute said.”
One state statute examined by Geier doesn't allow killing animals by decompression. Another exempts veterinarians and those practicing “bona fide” scientific research from the statute that prohibits treating animals in a “cruel manner.” Geier concluded the intent of the law forbidding “decompression” was to outlaw decompression as a form of euthanasia at humane societies. Nonetheless, in his report Geier did note that he believed the sheep experiments were “cruel” and questioned whether they represented “bona fide” research.
But today, researchers are exempted from these state animal cruelty statutes.
“I guess the good news is that the university didn’t restart these experiments immediately following the release of the (2011) report,” Geier said this week. “From the time drag, I’m hoping that they’ve sat down and really thought seriously about the report and the issues raised by the animal rights people. I also think the people on the animal care committees really do care about the animals. What you never like to see is someone get seduced by the dollars, and I don’t care if it’s these people, the athletic department or whatever. I would have been much more skeptical of the university’s intent if, immediately after the Legislation was enacted, the next day it would have gone full-bore ahead with the exact same research.”
Sandgren says that any future decompression studies using sheep wouldn’t simply repeat previous research, but build off previous results with the hopes of producing new information.
“One of the criticisms the activists level at this, and they typically do this with any long-standing project, is that 'you’re just doing the same thing over and over again,'” says Sandgren. “That’s fundamentally a misunderstanding of the kind of research that we allow for long-term projects. You follow up on existing work to take it one step further.”