As predicted, PETA’s ongoing campaign against scientific research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison continues, escalating this week with a striking advertisement on 100 Metro buses. The ad calls for an end to UW research aimed at better understanding how the brain processes sound. A central question is how sound arriving at both ears is combined to allow us to determine the direction of its source with respect to our body. Sound localization ability allows us, for example, to quickly react to an approaching car that we might not have seen. In turn, this kind of basic understanding has provided the knowledge necessary to help people with hearing disorders and to guide the way for cochlear implants. It is the work of a highly respected scientist, Professor Tom Yin, whose discoveries and research have been funded by the National Institutes of Health for decades. His research is publicly funded because the scientific leadership of our country determined that the work is important to serve the public’s interest in advancing scientific understanding and public health. Furthermore, and contrary to PETA’s claims, the cats are healthy and treated humanely, in accord with federal regulation, as demonstrated by the public reporting of thorough oversight by multiple federal agencies.
The ads that PETA is running on the buses don’t mention that. What they do instead is show a picture of a cat, a participant in the research and the phrase “I am not lab equipment. End UW cat experiments.”
The picture is one PETA obtained from an open records request. Video of the research, many pictures, and interviews of the scientists whose research is targeted can be found here. The PeTA ads also don’t mention that both the US Department of Agriculture and the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare investigated PeTA’s complaints and cleared Prof. Yin and UW of any wrongdoing.
We have written previously (here, here, here) in detail about PETA’s sustained efforts to use the federal regulatory system to end the UW’s sound localization research. We’ve also written about their other approaches to generate public and media attention – ranging from celebrity protests at the UW Board of Regents meeting to Bill Maher robocalls to an MMA fighting game where players are encouraged in violence (and sending emails to NIH opposing UW’s research).
Through all of this, PETA has made their position quite clear. Their goal is to end animal research regardless of the consequences for human and animal health, regardless of public interests.
While PETA’s campaigns are marketed as concern about animal welfare, even a superficial analysis quickly shows that it is not their central mission. After all, this is the same group with an abysmal record of killing the cats and dogs in their care. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that PETA’s investment in various campaigns is proportional to the number of animals involved in different uses. Only a tiny fraction of animals are used in research, in contrast to the vast majority in food, clothing, entertainment, service, and companionship. Yet animal research remains a major investment for PETA campaigns.
What PETA is aiming for when it targets animal research, particularly when it invests so much effort and so many resources to shut down a program involving only a dozen animals is political and obvious. They have selected a target that they believe will capture public emotion and sentiment in a way that serves a broader political goal that otherwise would be difficult to raise public attention and support.
In all of these campaigns, PETA is banking on a couple of expectations. First, that the public will not take the time to learn more about the research. Second, that the scientific, medical, advocacy, and patient groups will decline to engage or counter PETA’s outrageous claims. If, and when, those expectations are no longer met, PETA will lose its power to detract from a serious, civil and public consideration of science, medicine, and animal research.
For that reason, we believe that it is a critical responsibility of our community to continue to provide clear, factual, and responsive engagement to the public—regardless of how silly or wrong PETA’s tactics appear.
In the case of the Madison Metro bus ad campaign, we encourage the public and journalists who are interested in learning about the science– why it is conducted, the discoveries of the scientific team, the clinical applications, and the treatment of the animals—to take the time to learn more. The scientist and the University of Wisconsin have written extensively about the work. They have placed videos, photographs, interviews, papers, and point-by-point responses to PETA’s allegations in public view (more here). In fact, the scientist targeted by PETA for several years has provided a lab tour and interview to a local journalist.
Representatives of the university administration and animal research program have also consistently engaged with the media in a way that goes far beyond boilerplate responses and the university has hosted public discussions that have included contributions from both scientists and animal rights activists. At the time when PETA first made their allegations 65 of Prof. Yin’s colleagues even backed an Op-Ed piece written for the local newspaper. In other words – and no surprise –there is more to the story than a bus shrink-wrapped with a PETA billboard. UW-Madison has made that clear time and again, with consistent and sustained effort to provide the public with clear, factual information and to engage when questions are asked. More than that though, they also have a strong track record and commitment to science education and outreach in a great many venues.
While it is tempting to dismiss PETA’s tactics, it is worth public consideration that there is a sure long-term harm of acting on PETA’s commands without understanding the consequences to public interests, public health and the science that serves all of us. The scientific, academic, advocacy, patient, and other communities, on the other hand, know the value of the work that Prof. Yin and his colleagues are doing and can view this latest campaign as yet another time to speak up for the research.