Rhesus MonkeysPeople for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has filed suit against the University of Wisconsin-Madison over possible violations of the state’s Open Records Law. According to the Isthmus, the suit alleges that officials at the UW-Madison “improperly withheld some documents regarding eye experiments conducted on monkeys and cats, and improperly redacted information from others.”

University officials claim they withheld the information to protect the academic freedom of researchers, saying, “Any such records constitute unpublished proprietary research data…” Another possible reason is they don’t want the public to know about the gruesome, publicly funded experiments conducted on animals by researchers.

According to PETA, the experiments they are seeking information on are brutal: “[H]oles are drilled into animals’ skulls; recording chambers and restraint posts are bolted to their heads; electrodes are inserted into their brains; and stainless steel coils are implanted in their eyes.” The victims of these experiments are monkeys and cats. Many are killed at the end of the experiment. Particularly disturbing are the actions of researcher Michelle Basso. The Wisconsin State Journal reports she was recently suspended, with university officials citing “a lack of respect for veterinarians, incomplete record-keeping and instances where monkeys developed brain injuries.”

Even before the latest scandal, the University of Wisconsin-Madison was infamous for the way it abused research animals. Consider, for example, the experiments on sheep. Last year, the Isthmus reportedthat “sheep are placed in a hyperbaric pressure chamber to simulate what happens during a deep-sea dive, then monitored for signs of decompression sickness — the bends. The experiments, which the UW last fall classified as being in the highest category for animal pain and discomfort, are often fatal.” Not only is this cruel, it’s probably illegal, as Wisconsin state law forbids killing an animal via decompression.

While it is certainly cruel to cats and sheep, the university particularly has it in for primates. It is, after all, the site of psychologist Harry Harlow’s infamous 1950s-era maternal-separation and social isolation experiments, in which baby rhesus monkeys were taken from their mothers and placed with mechanical “monster mothers.” The school currently imprisons around 2,500 primates, with about 500 confined to isolation cages. Over eight hundred primates are subject to experimentation in any given year. It should come as no surprise that PETA placed the U of W-M on the top of its 2005 10 Worst Laboratories list.

With such a long history of questionable animal research practices, it is debatable whether or not we will see any real change at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the near future. However, shining light on the situation is an important step toward reform. If PETA’s lawsuit is successful, university officials may find it harder to hide behind the shield of “academic freedom,” and might instead find themselves having to justify their cruelty to the public.

Photo credit: PETA