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PETA misrepresents UW–Madison lab

September 18, 2020

This week, the University of Wisconsin–Madison was made aware of a letter in which an anti-animal-research organization makes claims about the conditions in an animal facility on our campus. Leaders and staff at UW–Madison, including people who care for and provide oversight of our animals, take seriously our responsibility to care for animals in research.

The organization that made these claims is PETA, an international activist group long opposed to animals in research. Their agenda is focused on stopping all animal research, despite the indispensable role animal research has had in eliminating diseases and alleviating the suffering of both people and animals.

Regardless of PETA’s larger goal and the motivations of an individual who did not disclose they were working on behalf of PETA while employed in a UW–Madison animal facility, UW–Madison is thoughtfully examining each of the allegations that the anti-animal-research group has made.

Scientists, veterinarians, and animal caretakers at UW–Madison work under the oversight of numerous campus committees and federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each makes sure laboratories follow animal welfare laws and guidelines while making important discoveries about human and animal health. If those agencies choose to investigate PETA’s claims, UW–Madison will participate fully in that process — as it does when undergoing regular, unannounced inspections of animals, facilities and records.

Many of the details in PETA’s letter were extracted from the university’s careful record-keeping, documenting the animals’ interactions with caretakers and veterinarians — including daily observations of their health status, and their diagnosis, treatment and recovery from common ailments. It speaks to the diligent care provided by specialized staff and veterinarians in UW–Madison’s animal facilities and the extensive training and attention to animal care balancing the health and safety of animals in research.

Episodes plucked out of context from years of notes on about 100 of the roughly 1,600 animals in the facility can be reframed to fit PETA’s agenda. So, too, can videos, which can be edited to present a misrepresentative view. In a clip that is less than four minutes long, we are left wondering what was left out.

For example, was an animal that appears to be resting in its home enclosure more active at a different part of the day? Did an injury, addressed by veterinary staff, result from social interactions between animals? Was an animal behaving in a way typical within the clinical context of a disease that serves as the basis of their importance to a research study?

It is also easy to play on the animals’ natural defensive reactions to intruders and elicit nervous or fearful behavior in order to deliver a video PETA can use to their ends. We know from decades of careful attention and work with these animals that their interactions with caretakers matter. In fact, by being close to cages to conceal their own actions, the employee may have induced anxious behavior in the animals.

UW–Madison researchers are driven by hope that science can help improve lives, by the curiosity that guides new discoveries, and by the bright future they see as they train the next generation of scientists. They are bound by the responsibility to balance the potential benefits of their research to people, animals and the environment against the potential risks to the animals involved. It would be unethical to ignore the many ways animal research can help. Animal studies have been critical to the development of vaccines and treatments for HIV and hepatitis, to our understanding of cancer, Alzheimer’s and other conditions, and have played a pivotal role in advancements toward a vaccine for COVID-19.