MAR 23, 2006
Wide gulf at animal research debate
If anyone came looking for compromise at Thursday night's public debate between animal rights activist Rick Bogle and UW-Madison professor Eric Sandgren, they picked the wrong venue.
For 90 minutes, Bogle - who leads the Madison-based Alliance for Animals - and Sandgren, who heads a university committee that regulates research on animals, butted heads over issues as basic as whether such research does any good and as nuanced as whether the suffering of animals in experiments merits more consideration than a simple cost- benefit analysis.
The discussion, moderated with the precision of a presidential debate and played out before a crowd of more than 200, produced little that has not been argued before by both sides in this long-contentious issue, locally and nationally.
But the extent of the gulf between the two speakers, on a few issues in particular, at times was still stunning.
Bogle, for example, said he would reject a cure for AIDS if it meant testing on animals and that it was appropriate to test drugs for childhood diseases directly on children.
"We should skip the animal model because it's misleading," said Bogle, whose group is trying to buy a piece of land near the university's primate research buildings for a protest hall. "Every drug out there that has killed people has been tested on animals first."
Bogle also stressed that he was not looking to make progress on the issue in "little steps," but wanted to end all research testing on animals as soon as possible.
"If it's wrong, it's wrong," Bogle said. "I'm not looking for larger cages, more fruit (for the animals), kinder care. All the primate centers in the United States should be closed."
Sandgren, meanwhile, said he could not picture a time when animals wouldn't be needed for at least some types of scientific research.
"As long as there's anything we don't know about how a body works," Sandgren said, animal stand-ins will be necessary.
Sandgren, a professor of pathobiological sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine, also acknowledged that UW-Madison has made mistakes in its animal research and protocols, including recent violations involving the death of animals due to negligence.
"We strive to be perfect," Sandgren said. "We don't reach that, nor does anyone else."
At the same time, though, Sandgren twice rejected even the possibility that some federally funded research could be needlessly repetitive. Sandgren said granting agencies studied proposals closely to make the right decisions.
"(The researchers) have to be able to justify the use of animals," Sandgren said. "It's extremely competitive."
The debate, sponsored by Isthmus and a student-programming board, marked the first time animal rights activists and researchers had sparred on campus in the past eight years. It was moderated by UW-Madison journalism professor Deborah Blum, who won a Pulitzer for her reporting on primate research, and by Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders.
Blum and Lueders took turns posing questions to Bogle and Sandgren, who made opening and closing statements and had time limits for responses and rebuttals. Audience members listened raptly, but politely, offering warm applause for both speakers at different points.
Reflecting their surroundings, Sandgren was generally soft-spoken and deliberative during the debate, while Bogle - while more direct and provocative in his comments - also maintained a civil discourse. But hostilities simmered below the surface, as when Sandgren told the audience that researchers had received death threats from animal rights activists and were harassed outside their homes by protesters.
Bogle said he knew nothing about the death threats and said the demonstrations at researchers' homes were needed to make the university debate the issue publicly.
Bogle also didn't deny that in 2003 he sent several e-mails to university researchers calling them "slime" and making other insulting comments. Bogle said he sent the messages after drinking "a bottle of Chardonnay" due to his frustration over the lack of reforms on campus.
Debate watcher Kyle Fischer, a UW- Madison junior who works part time in the university's primate research center, said he thought both speakers made some good points but thought Bogle made a big mistake with the wine comment and by swearing once.
Dan Cox of Madison said he thought the debate showed the need for a neutral third-party to investigate the issues.
"I'm for animals," he said. "I'm for all species. We have to co-exist with each other."