Animal rights debate explored

Craig Gustafson

Demonized and harassed for years, University animal researchers are taking the offensive against animal rights protesters by working to eliminate their most strident on-campus critic.
The Student Organization for Animal Rights was the subject of a Nov. 11 grievance filed on behalf of University researchers asking for a revocation of the activists’ student group status. If successful, SOAR would lose University funding and access to facilities.
The grievance marks the first attempt to strip a student group of its University standing.
The complaint pointed to four specific violations of the University’s Student Conduct Code, infractions of state laws and school regulations.
Dick Bianco, assistant vice president of the Academic Health Center, filed the complaint, specifically referring to SOAR’s most recent protest this fall.
Beginning Sept. 7, Matt Bullard, a SOAR member not affiliated with the University, suspended himself from the top of Moos Tower for six days in a small tent with a banner reading “Stop Animal Torture.” On the sidewalk below, other SOAR members handed out copies of Bullard’s demands and protest materials.
Bullard is scheduled to appear in Hennepin County District Court on Dec. 21 to face charges of fourth-degree burglary and criminal trespassing.
During the incident, SOAR violated specific provisions, including wrongful use of University facilities, disorderly conduct, violation of regulations and state laws, according to Bianco’s complaint.
In accordance with University regulations, the two sides met informally to discuss the grievance, but nothing was resolved.
Bullard and other SOAR members maintain animal research has never resulted in major discoveries. Bianco, on the other hand, said that “everything, everything comes through animal research.”
But Bianco and other administrators don’t buy Bullard’s assertion that the Moos Tower protest was only his idea and that SOAR didn’t participate. Bianco argued that the group had to be involved because SOAR members started protesting when Bullard secured himself to the building.
The scenario mirrored a February protest that ended with the arrest of a SOAR member who also dangled himself from Moos Tower. The animal rights group faced no repercussions at that time.
Bianco and his colleagues are now trying to make sure the group cannot continue unscathed from the protests.
“Legally, they have many, many rights, but when they break the law and threaten people — that’s too far,” Bianco said.

When the protesters arrived
During the past year, the University has seen dozens of small animal rights protests and three major incidents. Administrators say the groups are more prevalent and visible than ever.
“SOAR changes year to year; it depends on their leadership,” Bianco said. “This year they changed direction to illegal activities.”
The University suffered its most serious attack April 5 when the Animal Liberation Front — a militant, international animal rights group — vandalized a dozen research labs and freed more than 100 animals.
After breaking into Elliott Hall and the Lions Research Building, ALF members destroyed crucial research and inflicted $700,000 worth of equipment and property damage, University officials said.
ALF claimed responsibility for the vandalism later that day in an anonymous e-mail sent to its Minneapolis press office. “The following animals will never be harmed again at the hands of the vivisectors: 27 pigeons, 48 mice, 36 rats and 5 salamanders,” read the e-mail.
A few animals were recovered in a Woodbury field along Interstate 94. Some other animals froze to death. ALF spokesman Kevin Kjonaas said University officials might have planted the frozen animals.
But finding traditional and even destructive protests ineffective, some animal rights groups have taken their protest directly to researchers, often using violence to prove their point.
Among University researchers, Marilyn Carroll has become a favorite target because of her drug research on primates. Protesters occasionally rally in front of her home and office.
“Animals don’t have a chance to go home,” Bullard said. “Why should she have a peaceful evening at home?”
Carroll has become the poster-child for University animal research, so much so that SOAR has a campaign set up specifically against her and her research. The group’s Web site features an unflattering photo of Carroll, describing her as “witch-like.”
Besides protesting at her home, activists have chained themselves to the door of her lab. Carroll said on one occasion a protester tossed a chair across the room at her.
Most colleagues sympathize with Carroll’s situation, though one official said several researchers are relieved they have not been targeted.
Although SOAR focuses on Carroll, members suggest animal researchers have become desensitized to the harm they cause animals. Many have spent years working on animals and no longer see them as living beings, SOAR members said.
“I don’t think Marilyn Carroll is inherently a horrible person, but after years and years, she has become desensitized,” Bullard said.
Other groups have used similar tactics aimed at individual researchers.
A recent national campaign against animal research came in the form of razor blade-laced letters sent to more than 80 scientists nationwide.
The razor blades lined the top flap of the envelope, so a person opening the envelope would be cut.
The letters read: “You have been targeted, and you have until autumn of 2000 to release all your primate captives and get out of the vivisection industry. If you do not heed our warning, your violence will be turned back on you.”
Nobody was injured by the booby-trapped letters, and no University researchers were targeted.

The tour
A Minnesota Daily reporter and photographer toured the University’s animal research facilities located in the basement of Moos Tower.
All elevators and doorways leading to research areas are only accessible with key cards. Tighter security measures were imposed during the past decade in response to threats against researchers.
“We used to be wide open,” Bianco said. “We can’t do that anymore.”
But researchers would not allow the Daily into primate facilities. Monkeys in Carroll’s research area were visible only through small, reinforced windows.
She refused the Daily entrance to her facility, saying that the quality of her behavioral primate research would be compromised if the monkeys were to see or interact with humans.
But despite the sterile, hospital-like surroundings, the monkeys seemed comfortable. Researchers said the primates enjoy playing with bowling balls and watching television shows like “Wild Kingdom” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Primates comprise a fraction of the 75,000 to 100,000 animals used annually at the University. Ninety percent of the animals used for testing are rodents.
During the Daily’s visit, the surgical labs buzzed with activity. In an operating room, doctors performed a coronary-artery bypass on a dog.
The earliest forms of heart surgery were tested on dogs at the University in the 1950s and 1960s.
Lynn Hartman, a lab manager, said data from animal testing is entered into a computer. The computer is backed up every day to prevent loss of data.
“We don’t want to repeat using animals,” she said.
Sheep, like dogs, are operated on to test new procedures. They are used because young sheep mature in six months as much as a human child would in five years.
One surgical procedure currently in testing involves a stent, a small plastic device, to alleviate the pressure that builds up during an aneurysm.
To treat an aneurysm, one needs to be created.
Researchers start with a healthy sheep, then insert a balloon catheter into its brain to create an aneurysm in a blood vessel. Just prior to the vessel’s rupture, the doctors implant a stent to prevent it from popping.
The animal is unconscious during the 20-minute procedure. It awakens unharmed.
Other studies and procedures conducted at the University involve finding treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and AIDS.
Not everyone in the research labs operate and test on animals. Some are employed to care for animals.
Research Animal Resources employees are veterinarians who keep the animals entertained, calm and happy.
Roland Gunther, a lab-animal veterinarian, has been at the University since 1986.
“There are a lot of rules and regulations regarding cage sizes, cleanliness and proper feeding,” he said.
Gunther makes sure the lab meets government standards aimed at making the animals’ lives more comfortable.
He said several measures have been taken to improve the research animals’ quality of life. Cotton fluff was adding to many cages to allow the animals to build nests, and many of the animals are now housed together.
“They tend to be social animals,” Gunther said, referring to mice.
The University also has an Animal Care Committee that determines University animal-research policies.
All researchers must apply for project approval with detailed information on the number of animals used, statistical reasoning and any pain that might be inflicted on the animals.
Gunther said the University has a vested economic interest in keeping animals alive and healthy. It costs about 80 cents a day to feed and house each animal.

No debate
The two sides of the animal research issue are polarized on opposite ends of the spectrum with neither willing to flinch.
“We have quite the reputation on campus; we don’t really need to add to it,” said SOAR member Celeste Stover.
Bianco said researchers have not adequately explained the significance of their work to the public.
“We hold a press conference for new stuff, but don’t let them know where it begins,” he said.
People don’t realize that animal research has influenced nearly everything from shampoo products to complicated surgical procedures, Bianco said.
SOAR members said they have persistently requested a debate of animal rights issues with researchers, but to no avail.
Bianco said he refuses to debate because SOAR is not forced to prove its claims of torture and abuse of animals with facts.
“We publish things,” he said. “The numbers I give can be backed up by the USDA. They should be asked to back up what they say more often.”
But campus animal rights activists said the researchers are afraid of disclosure.
“(Bianco) is simply terrified of his research, in its pointlessness being made public,” said SOAR member Kate Petersen, a freshman. “He wants to be able to keep thinking that what he’s doing is correct.”
SOAR members insist they are realistic people with realistic goals. They are optimistic that revocation of their student status will fail.

Craig Gustafson covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected]