The use of mice, guinea pigs, dogs and other animals for laboratory research is commonplace at most large research universities, and the University of Vermont is no exception. But some local animal rights groups contend that UVM’s use of lab animals is shrouded in secrecy, even by national standards. They say the public needs to know more about the experiments in which animals are used, how they’re cared for, and the levels of restraint, distress and pain they endure.
Under the federal Animal Welfare Act, every public or private institution that uses animals for teaching or research must have a committee that oversees and approves the protocols for animal experimentation. That body, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, is often referred to by its acronym, IACUC (“eye-uh-cook”). Ostensibly, its purpose is to make transparent to the public how the university obtains, handles, cares for and ultimately disposes of its lab animals.
But, just as UVM tries to keep the identities of its large financial donors a secret, so too is IACUC trying to limit the public’s information about UVM’s animal experimentation. At least, that’s the charge coming from some local animal rights activists, who accuse UVM’s IACUC of conducting most of its business behind closed doors. This is possible because UVM has an exemption under Vermont’s open-meeting law, which allows the committee to go into executive session whenever it considers research protocols for works in progress.
“It’s quite a common phenomenon,” explains Lori Kettler, the Burlington-based senior counsel for the national animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “Once universities realize that they have to give up basic information about what kinds of animals they’re using, how they’re using animals and what happens to them, they don’t want that public.”
Kettler, who frequently files open-records requests at universities and research labs around the country, describes Vermont’s protection of UVM animal records as “much tighter” than in most other states. This despite the fact that, nearly two decades ago, activists successfully sued the university to open up its IACUC business to greater public scrutiny.
In the early 1990s, two animal rights groups, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for Animal Rights, sued UVM and its IACUC to force their compliance with the state’s open-meeting and public-records laws. According to court records, since 1985 the plaintiffs had been asking the university to open its IACUC meetings and make its minutes available. The university repeatedly refused. In May 1992, the Vermont Supreme Court decided in favor of the animal rights groups.
But that ruling didn’t stand for long. Four years later, the university lobbied the legislature to carve out an exemption to Vermont’s sunshine law. As a result, few data are now publicly available on how, why and for whom UVM uses animals in research.
Some information is accessible. By law, UVM must file an annual report with the U.S. Department of Agriculture summarizing the number of animals it uses in experiments, teaching or training and noting whether procedures involve pain or distress, and whether anesthesia or pain-relieving drugs are used. But that information, which can be found on the USDA’s website, is usually limited to one or two pages.
According to the university’s filing in 2008 (the last year for which annual reports are currently available), UVM used six dogs, 22 pigs, 111 rabbits and 336 guinea pigs. Of the guinea pigs — used in this case for a study on inflammatory bowel disease — 50 were subjected to pain or distress for which no painkillers or anesthesia were administered.
It’s worth noting that the Animal Welfare Act doesn’t cover mice and rats, which, according to Kettler, account for about 90 percent of the animals used in laboratory experiments. They don’t need to be listed on the annual report to the USDA, either.
Gary Kowalski is the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington and author of several books on the relationships between humans and animals. Though he’s been called “rather militant” on issues of animal testing, Kowalski says he doesn’t necessarily oppose all the research at UVM that involves animals, especially given that biomedical research often raises thorny ethical issues. The problem, he emphasizes, is one of transparency and openness: The public has a right to know how public money is being spent at a public institution.
“We don’t know the worth of any of this research, if it involves pain or suffering, or the extent to which animals might be forced to undergo needless procedures which have little or no value in terms of science or improving the outcome for human health,” says Kowalski. “I think the public is intelligent enough to have informed judgments and opinions about the appropriateness of this research.”
Kowalski has tried to obtain that information himself. He and his wife attempted to attend an IACUC meeting but, like other activists, were asked to leave the room while the committee conducted the bulk of its business.
UVM’s IACUC reports to Domenico Grasso, dean of the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. Although Grasso can’t speak directly about the 1990s lawsuit — he came to UVM in 2005 — he defends the importance of protecting researchers’ intellectual property, especially in today’s “incredibly competitive” funding environment.
“Our IACUC goes through a very rigorous process and has members of the community, scientists, a veterinarian,” Grasso adds. “We ensure that we are following the very best practices and taking every precaution with how we use laboratory animals. But if we were to make anything public, even if we tried to redact it, I think we would compromise the integrity of the researchers’ work.”
PETA’s senior attorney counters that assertion by claiming that many colleges and universities across the country do at least as much animal testing as UVM, but allow observers to sit in on their IACUC meetings and obtain copies of their full research protocols with proprietary information redacted. UVM’s 30-page animal- use protocol form requires such information as whether the experiments involve burns, trauma, food or water deprivation, prolonged restraint or induced stress.
“These claims that financial information of interest to the university will be revealed is just bogus,” says Kettler. “If you look at the protocol, there’s nothing revealed in there that would cause them any commercial harm … If there wasn’t something going on that they thought people would object to, why not provide the records?”
UVM isn’t the only public institution of higher learning in Vermont that keeps research animals, according to 2008 USDA records. That year, Vermont Technical College reported the use of 13 dogs, 19 cats, one guinea pig, nine rabbits, three caged birds and two reptiles. No information was available online about how those animals were used.
Johnson State College had live animals on its premises in 2008, but no longer does. For years, the school maintained an animal lab with amphibians and reptiles for demonstration purposes. But last summer, the lab was closed for good after a staffer noticed a foul smell and discovered dozens of the animals dead or dying from malnutrition. Of those that survived, some were given to an educational organization in Massachusetts; others had to be euthanized.
“What’s frustrating to me is that, if UVM is testing a drug, we have no interest in knowing what that drug is,” Kettler says. “We just want to know what’s happening to the animals.”