A leading national animal-rights group is suing Davis County to obtain documents regarding about 100 dogs and cats sold to the University of Utah by the county's animal shelter for medical experimentation in 2009.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday by Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), claims county officials broke open-records laws by denying PETA's Nov. 11 request for documents on shelter animals surrendered to the U. under the state's pound seizure statute.
The PETA suit seeks to overturn the county's claims that releasing pound seizure records could jeopardize the lives or safety of residents who left animals at the Fruit Heights shelter, or violate the privacy of those who adopted animals.
Bill McGuire, chief deputy Davis County attorney, declined to comment on the suit Tuesday afternoon, saying he had not read it yet.
The Davis County Animal Shelter was one of three publicly funded shelters in Utah that surrendered animals -- many of them former pets -- to U. labs last year, along with the Tooele City and North Utah Valley shelters. The transfers, which state law makes mandatory, came to light after a PETA operative surreptitiously hired on as an animal support technician at two U. laboratories between February and October 2009.
Notes, photos and videos compiled by the PETA infiltrator, since identified as Lindsay West, became the basis of formal complaints filed by PETA with the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The complaints allege systematic animal mistreatment and other violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act by U. scientists, animal technicians and research support staff.
U. officials have vigorously denied those claims, citing a series of annual USDA inspection reports going back to 2005 that gave their labs a clean record.
The Tooele and North Utah Valley facilities have both released documentation on pound seizures in response to requests by local animal-activists under Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act. In its suit, PETA claims the Davis County information is crucial to public debate on the issue.
U. officials say pound seizures are integral to beneficial medical research, but the practice is widely criticized by animal advocates, including the Utah Humane Society, as an abuse of public trust in shelters as animal sanctuaries.
``Animals people trusted Davis County to look after are being betrayed by the very people charged with protecting them,'' Kathy Guillermo, PETA's vice president for laboratory investigations, said Tuesday in a news release. ``People are horrified to learn that animals turned into the shelter have ended up surgically mutilated, injected with chemicals and killed at the U.''
Officials at the three Utah shelters involved say they only surrender dogs and cats set for euthanasia. At the Tooele and North Utah Valley sites, ``death row'' animals are sold to the U. expressly because there is a chance they will survive experimentation and be adopted, shelter operators there have said.
But other shelters, including those in Salt Lake County, refuse to cooperate with pound seizure requests and U. officials say they have not pushed the matter.
Hundreds of dogs and cats are sold by shelters for laboratory experiments at the University of Utah every year instead of being euthanized, under Utah's so-called pound seizure law, one of the few of its kind in the country.
U. officials contend the practice is essential to medical research, while animal advocates say it betrays public perceptions of shelters as a haven for abandoned animals.