A special prosecutor has declined to bring charges against nine UW-Madison researchers and officials responsible for experiments in which sheep died of decompression sickness.
David Geier, a Madison attorney, wrote in a report filed Friday that university employees did not violate a state law that bans killing animals through decompression.
Geier wrote that the university should not “receive a free pass,” however, because officials should have a better system to keep track of state and federal laws. He found that university employees he interviewed were either unaware of the state law or did not think it applied to them.
“It belies common sense that a research university, such as the UW, does not have a consistent review of both state and federal laws and regulations which apply to activities which take place on the campus and within research laboratories or facilities,” Geier wrote.
Dane County Circuit Judge Amy Smith assigned Geier to the case in June 2010 in order to weigh whether the employees should be charged with animal cruelty. Her order was prompted by a petition from the People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals (PETA) and Madison-based Alliance for Animals.
The experiments, funded by the Navy, focused on trying to prevent or treat decompression sickness in submariners and divers. A pair of sheep is placed in a hyperbaric chamber and subjected to increased atmospheric pressure, followed by decreased pressure, to simulate ascending from a dive.
UW-Madison has stopped conducting the experiments, said Eric Sandgren, who oversees animal research at UW-Madison, and the Navy has pulled its funding for the studies.
“We certainly wish the sheep had had their day in court,” said Kathy Guillermo, vice president of laboratory investigation for PETA. “We feel in the end it was a victory for the animals because the experiments have stopped.”
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Geier said it took him almost a year to write the report because he had to juggle his private practice caseload while acting as a private investigator in this case, conducting interviews, reviewing legislative history and reading scientific literature.
At issue are two state statutes. One prohibits killing animals by means of decompression. The other exempts veterinarians and people conducting “bona fide” scientific research from the statute that prohibits treating animals in a “cruel manner.”
Geier found that the term “decompression” is ambiguous because it has several meanings. The intent of the law when it was written in 1985 was to prohibit decompression as a form of euthanasia at humane societies.
Although he is not pressing charges, in the report Geier questioned whether the experiments were bona fide.
He pointed to the fact that the research is at a halt, after being conducted for more than 30 years, and the fact that the animals suffered from the time they left the decompression chamber to the time they were euthanized. Killing the sheep is necessary to study the effects of the experiments on the animal’s organs or bones.
“There is no doubt that the studies constitute activities which would be ‘cruel’,” he wrote.
Sandgren said that determining the value of research is an essential part of the university’s review process before a study is approved.
“I don’t know if these studies will be continued,” he said. “But if they are, certainly, they will only be done in the case that there’s the potential to extend knowledge and not just repeat it.”