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Animal rights activists are making strides with new tactics

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Local animal rights activists are making strides with new tactics
June 12, 2010

A change in strategy has given animal rights groups some momentum recently.

After many years of laboring against animal research, the animal rights movement has gained momentum in Madison in recent months.

Research opponents won a favorable court ruling earlier this month, packed a room for a public debate in March, and got the Dane County Board to take up the issue.

But despite increased public attention, animal rights activists say there has been little change when it comes to the use of monkeys and other animals in scientific studies.

"What we're up against is still huge," said Rick Marolt, a research opponent and member of the Madison-based Alliance for Animals. "Real change is still difficult and could be quite a ways off. But there is something rare going on."

Their efforts have also been buoyed by some high profile cases at UW-Madison. Two federal agencies visited UW-Madison in December and found violations of animal care. A researcher was suspended last year because of her treatment of monkeys.

The animal rights movement is especially active in Madison because of UW-Madison's prominence as a research institution — it operates one of eight national primate labs in the U.S. — and major private companies that conduct animal research here such as Covance.

Holding researchers' feet to the flame

Eric Sandgren, director of UW-Madison's animal care and use programs, said the university has been "tremendously influenced" by animal rights groups. The pressure has prompted the university to be more open with meetings and records, Sandgren said.

"They keep putting it in front of my face that I'm responsible for these animals," he said. "Yes, it does make me take it more seriously."

However, research opponents say they are still far from their ultimate goal: the elimination or significant reduction of animals used for research. Many scientists believe animal research is well-regulated and greatly benefits science and medicine.

"I have thought very hard about this," Sandgren said. "I have considered the ethics. The animal activists have thought very hard about this and considered the ethics. We reach very different conclusions, using the same ethical tools. That does not mean either of us has done anything wrong."

Marolt and others were disappointed that without much debate, a UW-Madison committee in January approved a statement that essentially said research is ethical given local and federal oversight.

"I would say we've been successful over the past couple years getting the issue in the public eye," said Rick Bogle, co-director of Alliance for Animals. "I don't know we can point to very many concrete successes in terms of affecting the status quo."

New tactics

But recent tactics might represent a shift in the way research opponents try to change attitudes and policies. Bogle said his group no longer protests at researchers homes, "because of the recognition it hasn't had much effect," he said.

Rather they have turned to more bureaucratic channels, currying favor with local politicians and filing lawsuits.

That proved successful in a recent court decision. Alliance for Animals and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a petition alleging that UW-Madison violated state law when sheep died in experiments on decompression sickness. UW-Madison said they have since stopped the experiments, but a special prosecutor is now considering bringing criminal charges against nine UW-Madison scientists and officials.

Marolt is optimistic that pressure from elected officials like the Dane County Board could be an effective tool to reach scientists. The board is considering creating a panel to study the treatment of monkeys in Dane County and the ethics of the research.

"No elected body of officials like the board of supervisors has ever taken an issue like this up in this country," Marolt said. "I think we're blazing trails here."

Still, university officials stand by the promise of animal research to make advancements in preventing and treating diseases. UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin wrote a letter last week to Dane County Board supervisors describing the County Board resolution as unproductive. She heralded the promise of animal research to find an AIDS vaccine.

"While the use of animals in research is an important matter of public debate, it is clear that there are differing points of view that are unlikely to be resolved as long as animal models...continue to inform essential biomedical research, discovery, and treatment," she wrote.

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