Defending science and countering falsehood at the University of Wisconsin Madison

PeTA celebrated a victory the past week when they obtained photographs of cats that are part of medical research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The work involves a small number of cats in studies that provide better understanding of hearing and that are relevant to improving treatment for human deafness.

An explanation of the purpose of the research, the care of the animals, and the reason that cats make unique contributions to this work are all clearly addressed in a university statement:

The research develops a better understanding of how the brain combines information from the two ears, including sound localization. Cats are used because of their extraordinary talents at localizing sounds. Feral cats likely do most of their hunting at night because that is when their rodent prey is most active. Because vision at night is limited, hearing is the primary sensory cue for the cat to localize its prey. The cat auditory system is very similar to that of humans, making it relevant to clinical studies of humans with bilateral cochlear implants.

An op-ed written by UW-Madison Department of Neuroscience professors Donata Oertel and Peter Lipton on behalf of 65 UW faculty members provides a voice of reason among a sea of emotive, rather than factual, accusations.

Widely recognized and respected in the biomedical research community, this research benefits hundreds of thousands of people who suffer from hearing loss. It is being mischaracterized by animal rights militants for their own purposes.

By spreading misinformation and outright falsehoods, PETA bypasses our system of justice and promotes harassment and attacks on the people and institutions that engage in important biomedical research.

Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison also seem less than impressed by PeTA’s allegations, and were not afraid to say so when interviewed by the Badger Herald and Daily Cardinal during a PeTA protest yesterday. Speaking to the Daily Cardinal about research she is involved in, biochemistry major Kelsey Corrigan rejected PeTA’s claims concerning the treatment of animals:

“We are not vicious toward them or treat them poorly, instead we use them in an effort to gain knowledge about cancer treatments.”

While PeTA used these photographs effectively to attract media and public attention, as is often the case, the images did not tell the whole story about the research.  Nor did PeTA.

That is not surprising. The point of PeTA’s three year quest to obtain these photographs—or really, any photographs at all that might be novel and useful in their campaigns—is absolutely straightforward.  Their goal is to provide the public with a negative view of animal research. The more sensational the photographs, the better they are; better for attracting media coverage, better for persuading others that laboratory animal research is inhumane without actually providing the facts, context, and accurate information.

What is surprising is the relative ease with which this tactic continues to work for groups like PeTA. Part of the reason that it works is that activist groups know they are unlikely to be countered immediately by effective presentation of the facts and explanation that the public or media would need to put the photographs into appropriate context. We have written previously about exactly this type of campaign and the continuing need for a much more public, immediate, and specific response that can provide reasonable people with answers to the questions that are raised by photographs provided without any context at all.

We were glad to see that the University of Wisconsin did in fact address each of PeTA’s claims with specific information in a point-by-point response that shows just how far PeTA went to misrepresent the facts about research at the University.  We hope that those who are interested in knowing more about the cats and the research will go beyond the PeTA pictures and give thoughtful consideration to the university’s detailed explanation of what those pictures show and why the research is performed.

The research community can do little to change the minds of those committed to ending animal research and that is not the goal of providing a public response to misrepresentation.  What the research community and their institutions can do, however, is to acknowledge the importance of contributing the factual information that is so urgently needed for the informed dialogue that a serious topic deserves.

It is an unfortunate reality that groups like PeTA will use sensational tactics and stunts as part of their agenda. In a time of continuing increases in transparency of animal research in the U.S., along with rapidly evolving communication tools, it is also an unfortunate reality that the old-school approach of institutions offering no comment, or offering blanket statements in response to public and media queries, will simply not work.  We need responses– like those of the UW-Madison faculty, administrators, and students– that support the science, address misrepresentation, provide facts, and promote civil dialogue.

Allyson J. Bennett

Addendum October 11, 2012 : The USDA inspection report has now been published and confirms that no non-compliant items were identified during the focused inspection at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in late September and early October.  In his story “Feds Clear UW of Wrongdoing Following PeTA Complaint”, Capital Times reporter Todd Finkelmeyer posts the USDA inspection report  and this summary:  “’This officially closes this matter for us,’ USDA spokesman David Sacks said in an email to the Cap Times. Sacks added that this was a ‘focused inspection — not a full facility inspection,’ and was designed to look specifically at the allegations leveled by PETA.”

22 responses to “Defending science and countering falsehood at the University of Wisconsin Madison

  1. It was great to see UWM respond in detail to PeTA’s allegations, but why, oh why, did it take them almost a week to do so. They were well aware that PeTA would be making allegations concerning this research, even if they didn’t know exactly what PeTA would make up until PeTA released their complaint and lawsuit. In failing to get this detailed information out to the public on the day this story broke, or at the very least the next day, UW handed PeTA a clear advantage in the media debate.

    Of course UWM’s exposure of the misrepresentations and distortions of the facts in PeTA’s complaint and lawsuit raises another important question; why would PeTA sumbit a complaint and launch a lawsuit if they know very well that the facts of the case don’t support their allegations?

    This is actually key to understanding what is going on here. Many university officials still take such complaints and lawsuits at face value, and don’t worry too much about them because they know well that they will be cleared when the investigation is completed. In doing this they are missing the point. The primary purpose of such complaints and lawsuits is not to win a case against the university, but to lend weight to the animal rights propaganda campaign against the institution, to convince journalists that their allegations should be taken seriously. So when an university fails to respond – or to respond quickly enough – because they see it as a legal or regulatory matter, they are falling into a trap that the animal rights group has set. By the time the case has been heard and dismissed the critical moment will be long past, and if they are lucky the dismissal of the allegations might merit a paragraph or two buried in the inside pages of the local newspaper.

    I guess only time will tell as to whether or not UWM published it’s point-by-point rebuttal of PeTA’s claims in time.

  2. @Paul, It is reasonable to expect institutions to be subject to a learning curve as we move away from the old-fashion, thoughtless, useless, “no comment” and “blanket statement” responses. But the UW and the scientists that published the OpEd are moving in the right direction and ought to be applauded for their response. As for PeTA’s tactics, yes — they speak for themselves and they have no qualms accepting the charge that they will do anything for publicity.

  3. @darioringach, I applaud what UW have done, and I was heartened by the tone they struck right from day one. As you say it was a lot better than many responses I’ve seen from University to animal rights propaganda campaigns, and I think we’re seeing the impact of that in the reaction from students to the PeTA campaign.

    I was just observing that there is still some room for improvement, and that when universities know that something like this is coming along they need to ensure that they have all the materials and staff ready to respond in the fullest possible way right from day one.

    The OpEd piece is great…cudos to Profs. Oertel and Lipton!

  4. I think it is amazing the work they did to get their response out in a week. These types of responses take some time to put together, especially if you have never done one before. I applaud them for doing such a great job. They will get better with time and I am sure PETA and Friends will be more than happy to give UWM plenty of opportunity to practice.

    In this case the responses to every point were clear, concise and very easy to understand. It is a brilliant idea and I hope others begin to use it as well. I see this as the first in a pivotal shift in how research institutions respond to allegations.

  5. At UW-Madison, we heard about the complaint, and received a copy from a reporter, at 10:00am on a Wednesday, By 1:00pm that afternoon we were able to state verbally to reporters and anyone else who asked that all of PeTA’s statements were unsupported (we could not respond to specific charges until we knew what they were going to be). That’s 3 hours! The detailed written point-by-point response went up on Monday the next week, after careful review by a lot of people, and we may consider posting something like that sooner should we find ourselves in a similar situation. This all worked because we have developed excellent cooperation among University Communications, our animal research program, and faculty and staff regarding animal activist attacks. We also have people willing to respond immediately. I too am amazed that PeTA keeps getting away with this stuff. How do we put them on the defensive?

  6. Hi Eric, I totally understand the need to get the point-by-point response right, and to make sure that the right people are involved in drafting and reviewing it. I was greaty impressed then I read it, which is why I wished it had been published a few days earlier.

    As to why PeTA gets away with it? There are unfortunately too few journalists with the skills or time – like the rest of us they’re usually up against tight deadlines – to go through the allegations and all the supporting documents themselves, so when they see that a complaint of lawsuit has been lodged they assume the claims must be accurate. I guess that far too people realise that PeTA’s lawyers are really just part of its propaganda machine, and they have plenty of money to spend on court cases that they know will fail.

    In any case you’ve already done better than 99% of institutions in your situation, so keep up the good work!

  7. “far too people” => “far too few people”

    I guess this is why you need to get people to review things;-)

  8. What was performed on that cat and other cats in that protocol in the name of science is disgraceful.

    • I completely agree. Animal testing may help with the groundwork for curing diseases, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that animals are still suffering. It is cruel and immoral. There are other ways scientists can gather information to build upon, such as machines that use human cells and are far more accurate at coming up with cures than any animal test could. According to the policy adviser for PETA, Currie, 90 percent of medications that work on animals don’t work on humans. That is a high percentage, so why are we using innocent creatures if they aren’t even going to be helpful to us? Scientists need to start using newer ways to find cures than testing on animals and not getting positive results.

      • No there aren’t [yet].
        One of the purpose of THIS experiment was exactly accumulating data to build a software simulation of the brain behaviour [as explained in the article] in view of the 3R protocol so that in future the number of animals needed can ben reduced, with hope that it can be taken to zero someday.
        The scientist are ALREADY using newer ways to reduce the number of animals used for example today with new tecnology it is possibile to use JUST one rat [that is NOT sacrificed at the end] for one kind of experiment that twenty years ago needed the sacrifice of hundreds of mices as now it is possible to monitor the activity of the brain in vivo without the need to dissect the animal. THIS progress has been possible ONLY thanks to the Animal testing.
        It’s wishful thinking to say that AT THE PRESENT MOMENT we can STOP using animals in research.
        The fabled Organ On A Chip are a REALLY interesting development BUT are NOT yet ready for widespread use, they need to be Tested, Refined and Verified, and that takes time.

  9. Mary Theresa Koumjian

    [Deleted at request of Author]

  10. Terrie Colehour

    There is a special place in hell for people who abuse cats. Cochlear implants are worthless.

  11. I don’t morally feel this is necessary. 30 cats/year is not a “small number”. But if even one cat is terrorized and killed, it is unnecessary. I’m not against animal testing in controlled, humane circumanstances, but this just doesn’t sit well with me. It doesn’t matter to me if the UW was cleared of allegations, and I’m not a member of PETA. I’m just someone who thinks this is wrong and produces so little help to humans as to render it a cruel waste of time.

  12. Mary Theresa Koumjian

    It’s a tough issue. But if you ever had a kitty you loved, you might feel really sad that they could get lost and someone would pick them up and take them to a lab for research. But that’s the sad world we live in.

    • We do not use pets in research for many reasons *unless* it is for newly developed procedure, like a new surgery technique to fix your kitty’s broken leg in a new clinical study. Then it is the same as a person being in a clinical study. This is a very common MYTH put forth by the AR crowd to instill fear and misunderstanding among people with their #ARNonsense. But it is just that, a myth.

  13. It is actually illegal to use non-lab bred animals in research (except for that kind described above by GuysGyrl). Cats must be lab bred. Also, cochlear implants are not worthless, as someone mentioned above. Must be someone born with the privelege of hearing. Do they need improvement so that users can appreciate the full auditory world around them? Sure, that’s why the research is ongoing. Hence the cats…

  14. Sad and disgusting to see how so said scientist keep themselves blind to the pain of defenseless animals. At the end, are you sure that the progress for human well-being is worth that pain ? Will you sleep quietly at night and pamper your kids with their beloved cat without any kind of remorse ?

  15. Cats are highly evolve creatures, you well know that failure after failure of the research at tax payers expense is a crime on itself, I do not want to put a cat through this torture to study the brain of a deaf person and how it works, in this day of computers all is provided to science, THE TRUTH IS THAT THEY NEED THE 3 MILLION FOR THE UNIVERSITY AND WILL DO ANYTHING TO GET IT, IT BACKFIRE THIS TIME, there are over 300000 signatures asking to have the funds cut off and this will happen soon so hurry up ant torture more cats in the name of science.
    and all of you students that have to speak in favor of this procedure educate yourselves a little more.
    we have a lot of college idiots running around earning diplomas.

  16. taxpayandvoters.

    why do you have to use cats when other university’s are using updated modern , equipment and procedures, and human volunteers,why can’t you do that with 3 million dollars ?.it’s the peoples tax’s that’s funding this! over 300000 people have said they don’t like this way your doing now, maybe be cheaper to change to the new way?think about it. signed- the tax payers and the voters for the next congress and senate.

  17. where do they get the cats? why not find a new alternative that will amaze us all instead of enraging us all? why has the “new research development” never been shared with the public seeing ass 3million tax dollars went into it? why has the “success” about these tests and experiments ever been shared? if there has been no success, then why continue…. i have been trying to get answers from the university for weeks, but they wont even answer any of my questions, one i am concerned about: WHERE DO YOU GET THE CATS??? i have asked that question a million times by now!!!!! you know they are trying to hide stuff when they dont get back to the public who just asks questions.

  18. firewolf3251

    their suppose to be in house breeder for that purpose now! they even have them breeding them so they will develop cataracts! as far as i know there not suppose to get cats or any dogs from Private Sector anymore , the optimal word being (not suppose!!!), as to why they won’t answer back, their still guilty of something, like haven’t stopped torturing cats yet!?