Some lab animals die, but others get a second chance
Since a national animal-rights group went public in November with an undercover exposé of two University of Utah biomedical labs, it has depicted the U. as a kind of torture gulag for animals, including former pets seized from area shelters.
U. officials instead say their use of pound dogs and cats in research gives discarded creatures otherwise slated to die a good chance at survival, while saving taxpayer dollars.
Documents and interviews related to pound seizures paint still another picture. Shelter animals-turned-research subjects die in higher numbers than the U. likes to acknowledge, but contrary to allegations of cruelty, there are ample signs they are treated with compassion.
While pound seizures lead some pets to a heavily sedated death in a laboratory, others move on to a redeemed life with new owners.
An active adoption program has sprung up around the significant numbers of dogs and cats that do survive U. biomedical experimentation. Adoptive owners, many drawn from the wider U. community, love animals but often believe passionately in their value to medical research.
Each time she gets a flu shot, Kate Bradshaw, of Salt Lake City, is grateful to her adopted lab dog Jack.
"I feel somewhat complicit in benefiting from medical research," Bradshaw said of her black and tan husky-Belgian shepherd mix, adopted from the U. labs in 2005. "I almost look at him and say, 'Thanks buddy!' "
The gentle, loyal dog shows no health or social effects from being a research subject, Bradshaw said -- apart from willingly offering his paw to the vet for shots.
Jessica Phibbs, of Sandy, lost her father when she was 7 to a heart ailment that is today curable. "Without research on dogs, those kinds of advances would not be happening," said Phibbs, who has adopted two U. research dogs.
From the pound to the lab » The U.'s pound seizure pipeline was brought to light by an infiltrator from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who worked surreptitiously as an animal-care technician at the U.'s Comparative Medicine Center, from February to October 2009.
Under Utah law, shelters are required to surrender dogs for $20 and cats for $15 to research and educational institutions approved by the state Department of Health. Currently, only the U.'s biomedical research labs can request animals scheduled for euthanasia under the 29-year-old statute, which is now under review by the Utah Legislature.
Salt Lake County's major shelters refuse to go along with pound seizures, claiming they undermine the perception of shelters as havens for abandoned pets. Instead, the U. labs looked to shelters in bordering counties -- the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter in Lindon, the Davis County Animal Shelter in Fruit Heights and the Tooele City shelter in Erda -- to obtain a total of 190 dogs and cats in 2009.
Of those, 116, or about 61 percent, were killed in the course of research. The rest survived and went up for adoption, as did a comparable percentage of the 276 shelter animals surrendered to the U. in 2007 and 2008.
U. officials claim survival rates of about 50 percent of all pound animals seized over the years.
The director of the North Utah Valley shelter, which supplied at least 44 animals to the U. last year, said he is comfortable with the survival numbers.
Shortly after Virginia-based PETA launched its campaign against U. animal research, shelter director Tug Gettling said he toured U. lab facilities, talked with the staff, and interacted with some of the lab animals.
Gettling even held and petted Robert, an orange-and-white tabby cat from the Davis shelter and subject of an invasive brain experiment that was featured prominently in PETA's media offensive. Robert has since been retired and put up for adoption.
"I was not disappointed. I'm probably more of an advocate for what they do up there now than I was before," Gettling said of the tour. Dogs and cats sent to the U. "have a zero percent chance of survival at my facility, so if they have a 1 percent chance of being adopted out there, that's 1 percent better than we have here."
After being assured the U. program gave otherwise-condemned animals a chance to live, the Tooele shelter took part for three months at the start of 2009 and surrendered at least 11 dogs and one cat. All were eventually killed, according to records obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune .
When Tooele City shelter director Debra Bush learned of the fatalities, she "suspended the program at that point and we have not participated since," Bush told the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin. Her supervisor, police Capt. Steve Newkirk, said the city has not received further requests, but its attorneys will be asked to study the matter before the shelter participates again.
Around two-thirds of animals seized by the U. in 2009 came from the Davis County shelter, where officials are no longer commenting on the issue. Since November, the county has been targeted by a small animal-rights protest and sued by PETA in 2nd District Court for refusing to hand over pound seizure-related documents.
Allegations of mistreatment » A majority of pound animals taken to the U. last year were pets, either relinquished by owners or labeled by shelter workers as strays. Medical researchers favored mid-sized dogs averaging about 55 pounds, most commonly labradors and pit bulls. Seized cats were typically short-haired and of medium build.
U. animal technicians collected dogs and cats once or twice weekly, usually transporting about three animals in a day but sometimes up to a dozen, documents show.
The U.'s Comparative Medicine Center features a recently modernized, 70-kennel holding facility. Arriving animals are scanned for microchips. They are given a physical exam, inoculations against common diseases and sometimes a course of antibiotics, then begin ongoing care from one of four staff veterinarians. Animal-care technicians are assigned to monitor and log their conditions daily.
In federal complaints filed after its sting, PETA alleged systemic mistreatment at U. labs of as many as 10 kinds of animals, including dogs and cats. In some instances, the group contends, care technicians were told to refrain from reporting animal suffering to vets.
The U. disputes those claims, noting, among other things, that its facilities and methods have been regularly inspected and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Shelter animals were held an average of three weeks before being prepped and delivered to researchers, documents show. According to Jack Taylor, a veterinary pathologist and director of U. animal resources, a few owners have turned up over the years to reclaim pets already in an experiment, and the animals were withdrawn and returned.
Volunteers walk dogs at the center most evenings. A smaller group enters the kennels to play and socialize with the cats. "These people just love doing it," said Taylor.
All U. animal research is reviewed by veterinarians before being scrutinized again by an official 15-member panel, known as the U.'s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. The university is protective of details about its researchers, animal-care technicians and the often-proprietary experiments they oversee.
Redacted U. documents note pound animals used for "evaluation of a lung biopsy device," "hole creation," and, in one case, "automated leg force production," related to U. work on improving nerve-activated prosthetic limbs.
People connected with the labs also mention dogs in wound-healing and drug-evaluation studies and anesthetized cats used to instruct medical students on tracheal intubation, in which a flexible tube is placed into the trachea. Nearly all the pound animals also were part of an electro-cardiogram study, documents indicate.
PETA, which opposed all medical research involving animals, has claimed that U. researchers subject dogs, cats and other species to cruel procedures and that the animals endure protracted suffering before euthanasia. But documents indicate that the dogs and cats killed last year were heavily anesthetized from the outset of experiments, either with large injections of barbiturates or with isoflurane gas, akin to what is used on human surgery patients.
Euthanized animals were put down the same day or the day after they entered an experiment, documents for 2009 show. Dogs and cats were killed without regaining consciousness, using a large dose of potassium chloride, sodium pentobarbitol or a commercial mix of chemicals called Beuthenasia, commonly used by shelters. Their corpses were cremated.
"The last thing these dogs and cats know before they die is a thank you and a loving caress from a human who really cares," said Phibbs, who is also a U. employee. "I just don't think the public knows how much love and concern is shown to these animals."
Use of pound animals at the U. has declined over the years, part of a national trend of large animals being replaced by computer models, tissue cultures and use of smaller species.
Still, U. officials say, use of shelter animals helps them save public research dollars by lessening use of so-called breeder animals, which are raised exclusively for lab use and cost far more.
That cost difference, according to Martin Stephens, vice president for animal-research issues at the Humane Society of the U.S., "is the real elephant in the living room on this issue. It is rarely acknowledged but clearly is a driving force."
Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has filed two federal complaints alleging mistreatment of a wide variety of species at two University of Utah medical facilities. Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health have inspected U. laboratories and are expected to issue their findings in the coming months.