Animal Welfare Panel Sues Own University, Fearing Harassment From Animal Rights Activists | Science
In an unprecedented move, members of a confidential group that oversees animal research at the University of Washington (UW) have sued their own school to block the release of their names to an animal rights organization. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been trying to obtain this information for more than a year, accusing the composition of the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) of violating federal law. But committee members – citing an increase in animal rights activism at school, including protests at the homes of individual scientists – say they are concerned that PETA and other animal rights organizations animals don’t use their names to target them.
“Animal rights groups have created a climate of fear at the university,” said the school’s IACUC president, Jane Sullivan, who led the lawsuit. “I’m a big fan of openness and transparency, but not when it threatens the safety of my committee members.” She and others fear PETA’s decision is the start of a national effort: The advocacy group also wants to appoint IACUC members to the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst.
Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of PETA, says her organization just wants the UW committee to comply with the law. “IACUC is the last line of defense for animals in laboratories,” she says. But PETA suspects the university’s board is so biased toward research interests that it’s not fulfilling its federal mandate. “IACUC members’ alleged fear of releasing their names would seem to have more to do with covering up a flawed process than anything else.”
Every U.S. institution that receives federal funds for animal research must have an IACUC with five or more members, including scientists, veterinarians, and at least one nonscientist and one person unaffiliated with the institution. This makeup is supposed to ensure that animals are properly cared for and only necessary experiments take place, according to the US National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), which oversees these committees. Non-scientists can include ethicists and clergy.
Most large institutions keep the names of members confidential (the president and chief veterinarian are often exceptions). This allows the UW to hide the fact that its IACUC is not properly constituted, argues Lisa Jones-Engel, senior science adviser to PETA. In September 2020, she began filing a series of public information requests with the school, asking for the names of current and former members.
Jones-Engel, a biological anthropologist at the university for 17 years, was in a unique position to challenge the IACUC: she served on it from 2017 to 2019. Towards the end of her term, she filed complaints with the university alleging that the 20 or so members of the committee did not include an ethicist and that it was “stacked” against people likely to question animal experiments; she argued that some members considered non-scientists actually had strong ties to animal research. These concerns eventually led her to leave UW and join PETA. The membership lists she seeks will document these issues, she says.
Early last month, UW announced it would release the names, saying it was compelled by the state’s Open Archives Act. Sullivan hired an attorney and, along with four anonymous IACUC members, sued the school to stop the release. On February 24, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order, ruling that the fear of harassment by IACUC members “far outweighs” any “additional knowledge” sought by PETA.
Susan Silk, former director of OLAW, agrees. She notes that there are internal and external checks on the composition of an IACUC; anyone with concerns can file a complaint with OLAW or the United States Department of Agriculture. “I see no reason why the public would need to know the name of any IACUC member.”
Sullivan adds that government and private laboratory watchdogs have found no issues with the composition of the UW IACUC. She thinks PETA’s real goal is to target committee members.
In addition to staging protests on the campus of UW, whose animal use program is one of the largest in the nation, PETA supporters recently demonstrated outside the homes of two US-affiliated officials. school primate facility. Individuals wearing monkey masks held signs showing animals in cages and asking, “Do the neighbors know you torture monkeys?” Sullivan says activists left threatening emails and voicemails for university scientists and compared IACUC members to Nazis during online committee meetings. “There is no doubt that the effect is to instill fear and terror,” she says.
Jim Newman, director of strategic communications at Americans for Medical Progress, which promotes the need for animals in labs, agrees. “You don’t go to someone to make a general point,” Newman says. “You say, ‘We know where you live.'”
Guillermo counters that PETA’s protests have been “peaceful” and “legal”. She says her organization “does not and has never encouraged its followers to send or leave anything other than polite messages.”
Sullivan acknowledges that neither she nor the IACUC vet, whose names are both public, were harassed at home. But she says her concern isn’t just PETA, it’s what more radical activists might do in response to the publicity, as happened in “Pizzagate” and related incidents during the presidential election. American of 2016. “My biggest fear is that someone else will take charge.”
Next month, the judge who issued the restraining order can either lift the injunction or make it permanent, though PETA can then appeal. A verdict from a higher court could set a legal precedent for the state or even nationwide.
Meanwhile, PETA has applied for IACUC membership from UMass Amherst. The organization says the committee may be improperly constituted and that its confidentiality violates the state’s open meeting law.
Michael Malone, vice-chancellor of UMass Amherst, fears this strategy will spread. “If people start showing up at your house, where will that leave us in terms of IACUC staffing?” he says. “Members of these committees should ask themselves: ‘Is this a good animal model?’ Not ‘Am I going to be accosted on the way to the grocery store?’ »