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Donata Oertel and Peter Lipton: Harassment of researchers must stop

Donata Oertel and Peter Lipton: Harassment of researchers must stop

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Almost everyone at some time receives medical care that improves the quality of life, extends it or even saves it. Health care is effective because the underlying causes of diseases are understood, often because treatments have been developed and tested on experimental animals.

Our children are protected from polio by animal research. The veterinary care of our pets and farm animals, too, has benefited from experimental work on animals. But the development of new treatments for humans and animals here in Madison is being threatened by the actions of animal rights activists, notably People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and their subsidiary, the Alliance for Animals.

PETA recently initiated a campaign against a University of Wisconsin researcher in the School of Medicine and Public Health and his colleagues, as described in the Wisconsin State Journal on Sept. 12. The complaints made by PETA allege that the research violates the Animal Welfare Act, when in fact it does not. Not only were these complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health, but reports were made to newspapers and posted to the Internet. Other animal rights groups have followed suit and have posted photos of the researcher and his colleagues along with inflammatory rhetoric.

PETA's charges did not come from any violations or citations of the researcher's animal care but arose through a "fishing expedition" from the release of medical care records in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Those charges have now been thoroughly reviewed by veterinarians who were unable to substantiate a single one of PETA's allegations. Each charge arose from events that were either misunderstood or misconstrued.

A few examples illustrate distortion of the facts: The group interprets notes taken during surgery as the animals "waking up." Anesthesia in animal subjects, as in humans, is continuously monitored. When anesthesia becomes light, supplementary doses are required and administered, as was the case here. The PETA complaint also suggests that animals were not observed on a daily basis. They were, although not necessarily by veterinarians.

PETA also falsely states that invasive surgery was performed with inadequate anesthesia when on the day in question no surgery was performed on the animal. On that day the animal was lightly anesthetized so that its hearing could be tested as hearing is tested in human newborns.

The work at the core of this harassment directly benefits hearing-impaired people. The research has shown us how animals determine where sounds arise and how the brain measures differences in the time of arrival and in intensity of sounds at the two ears, which tells us whether sounds come from the front or side. This understanding demonstrates why people with hearing impairments benefit significantly from having two properly balanced hearing aids. The research also shows why deaf people benefit from receiving two cochlear implants that give them an enhanced, richer acoustic environment.

Widely recognized and respected in the biomedical research community, this research benefits hundreds of thousands of people who suffer from hearing loss. It is being mischaracterized by animal rights militants for their own purposes.

By spreading misinformation and outright falsehoods, PETA bypasses our system of justice and promotes harassment and attacks on the people and institutions that engage in important biomedical research.

Most biomedical researchers care deeply about the welfare of the animals with which they work daily. It is disheartening to see the public misled by an organization that supposedly champions animal welfare. Through the Animal Welfare Act, society has effective mechanisms to assure the welfare of laboratory animals.

We are all saddened by the senseless attacks on valuable biomedical research and the people who work diligently to improve human and animal health and our quality of life.

Oertel and Lipton are both professors in the UW-Madison Department of Neuroscience. The column was written by them on behalf of 65 UW-Madison faculty members.

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