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A victory for animal rights groups this week could pose a frightening prospect for UW-Madison scientists.

A judge Wednesday appointed a special prosecutor to decide whether nine scientists and officials should be criminally charged — which could mean a fine or jail time — under a state law that prohibits killing animals by decompression.

The scientists used sheep to study decompression sickness, or the bends. Multiple sheep died in the studies, which were funded in part by the U.S. Navy to learn how to prevent the malady in divers.

Officials at UW-Madison said they were aware of the state law but didn't believe it applied to them because of an exemption for scientific research in the state statutes.

The case has attracted national attention because it is unusual for animal rights groups, Madison-based Alliance for Animals and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), to use a state law to fight the research in court. Typically, such challenges fall under the federal animal welfare act and are investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The risk of criminal charges could be worrisome to scientists who want to do research involving animal studies, university research officials said.

"Any kind of an approach that puts scientists or anyone else at risk for legal action obviously is going to have a kind of dampening effect," said Eric Sandgren, director of the UW-Madison animal care and use program, one of the nine who could be charged.

Violated state law

The studies, which have been going on for more than 20 years, have been used by the Navy to prevent or treat decompression sickness in submariners and divers, according to university officials. The experiments involved placing sheep in a hyperbaric chamber, subjecting them to increased atmospheric pressure, followed by decreased pressure, to simulate ascending from a dive.

Dale Bjorling, chairman of the department of surgical sciences in the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, said the decompression research has saved lives and prevented suffering among Navy divers. He said the work resulted in more accurate decompression tables for divers, allowing them to better calculate the amount of time needed to surface without getting the bends.

After Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard issued an opinion that the studies violated state law in the fall, the university stopped the experiments, officials said. Blanchard decided not to prosecute because he said it would not be a wise use of resources.

That prompted PETA and Alliance for Animals to petition the court in March in an effort to get the state to prosecute.

"The fact that it's been going on year after year is particularly disturbing," said Kathy Guillermo, vice president of laboratory investigations at PETA. "This has gone unchecked for so long. This is a really horrible way to die."

UW-Madison has argued that the decompression law was intended to prevent animal shelters from using pressure chambers to euthanize animals. Attorneys for the university have said an exemption for research applies, but Dane County Circuit Court Judge Amy Smith wrote in her Wednesday decision that there is no such exemption to the decompression law.

She appointed Madison attorney David A. Geier to serve as special prosecutor to determine whether the nine university employees should be charged in the deaths of four sheep that fall within the statute of limitations. Other options are issuing an injunction to stop the experiments or imposing fines.

'Very, very chilling'

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Frankie Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, called the threat of criminal complaints against researchers using animals "very, very chilling."

Others involved in research on the UW-Madison campus agreed.

Bjorling said potential criminal charges could discourage scientists from pursuing important research that use animals as models.

"Absolutely," Bjorling said. "If you thought you could be subject to a criminal charge as a result."

Bjorling added that animal research has led to important advances in science and medicine. Opponents of such research argue that the science from animal research can be achieved through computer modeling but Bjorling said that isn't true.

"I really think that shows an incredible lack of understanding about this research," Bjorling said. "If some drugs were not perfected through animal testing, there could have been enormous human suffering...it revolves back to the philosophical question. Who are we going to put at risk?"

The controversy attached to UW-Madison animal research could also harm the university's ability to lure top talent, said Donna Paulnock, interim director of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center.

"This could leave the impression that Wisconsin is not a good place to do biomedical research," Paulnock said. "Certainly recruiting and retaining both the best and the brightest could be affected."

Effects at UW-Madison

PETA's Guillermo said she doesn't know how often her group will be able to pursue similar legal action.

But she said PETA will continue to "try to be creative" in the way to approach these cases.

"In most states there aren't provisions for seeking justice for animals in this way," she said.

In a small way, the case has already had an effect at UW-Madison.

After Blanchard's opinion, Sandgren contacted researchers at UW-Madison who might be using decompression to study hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, on mice.

If they weren't already doing so, Sandgren asked that those scientists use a nitrogen-based method to simulate atmospheric conditions rather than decompression.

Deborah Ziff can be reached at dziff@madison.com or 608-252-6234. Ron Seely can be reached at rseely@madison.com or 608-252-6131.

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