Robert the CatResearchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison can welcome a new member to the (sadly not very exclusive) abuse-of-lab-animals club. According to BusinessWeek, “Researchers at the University of Utah don’t always follow protocols when it comes to the welfare of its laboratory animals, according to federal inspectors.”

In January, a five day inspection conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found nine violations of federally regulated animal testing requirements. The violations, according to Deseret News, related to situations such as a kitten who died from dehydration after being given too much medication, individual primates who were neglected for days at a time, mice and Guinea pigs crammed into overcrowded cages, and calves kept in pain for too long.

Despite all that, the USDA said the research program was essentially “in good order.” 

The university’s response? Vice President of Research Tom Parks says these are “relatively minor offenses.” The punishment meted out by the USDA? It’s pretty harsh. Apparently, warnings were issued informing the university to correct inappropriate behavior before the next routine investigation. Not that the university has to worry: Parks plans to hire an extra staff member to help keep an eye on research techniques and the animals used in testing. I’m sure that will make all the difference in the world.

The mainstream media tended to stress how minor the University of Utah’s infractions were, while occasionally stressing how stringent federal laws regarding animal research are. Little, if anything, was reported as to what actually goes on at the university labs. For that gruesome information, one must look to investigations conducted not by the USDA, but by the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals.

For more than eight months in 2009, a PETA investigator worked undercover inside the University of Utah laboratories. Among the findings:

  • Experimenters and their staff discouraging animal caretakers from informing staff veterinarians when animals were suffering.
  • Veterinarians taking up to a week to look after animals after being informed of the animals’ suffering.
  • A rabbit left in a hallway without food or water for four days.
  • Mice being had been allowed die without any care.
  • Dead animals left in cages for days, forcing their cagemates to walk around their bodies to get to food and water.
  • A monkey kept in solitary confinement, caged alone in a room with no chance to interact with, or even see, others of his own kind.
  • Experimenters keeping some monkeys constantly thirsty so that they would cooperate during experiments just to get a few drops of water.

For many animal lovers, the most shocking part of the PETA investigation concerned a cat named Robert. A beautiful and friendly tabby, university lab workers paid $15 to adopt Robert from Davis County animal shelter. Rechristened F09-017, he would now be subjected to invasive brain experiments. Experimenters cut into Robert’s skull and implanted electrodes in his brain. Electrical currents were then fired through the electrodes, stimulating nerves that caused Robert’s legs to move involuntarily. After each experiment, according to PETA’s investigation, “Robert showed signs of trauma: He was tired and groggy, his pupils dilated and his eyes became glassy, and he vomited repeatedly. Over time, this affectionate cat became skittish and withdrawn.”

Some good came out of all of Robert’s horror. Utah state law was amended so that government-run animal shelters would no longer be forced to sell dogs and cats to laboratories. And there may have even been a happy ending for Robert. PETA says university officials informed them “Robert will be retired from the laboratory and adopted into a new home.”

I wrote “may be a happy ending” because I have not found any confirmation that Robert was actually adopted, and frankly I don’t particularly trust the university officials. After all, Vice President of Research Tom Parks said his researchers “love animals as much as anybody does and more than most,” presumably with a straight face.

Will any good come out of the the USDA’s investigation of the University of Utah’s research facilities? I’m not holding my breath. At the risk of sounding cynical, it all seems too much like a dog-and-pony show. The government conducts a half-hearted investigation, notes some “minor offenses,” and issues a toothless warning. The university goes through the motions of being apologetic, puts on a caring face, and pledges to do better next time around.

As for the animals themselves, they will continue to suffer. And die.

Photo Credit: PETA