This week marks World Week for Animals in Laboratories, an annual animal activist observance for those who oppose the use of animals in health research. While WWAIL, as it is often called, is not as heavily observed nowadays as it has been in the past, it still features a handful of protests and other actions across the country.
Many times, American universities are the targets of these protests. And sadly, many institutions get a failing grade when it comes to responding effectively. However, this week, the University of Missouri offered a master class in how to respond to a PETA protest. Take for example this article, which appeared in the Columbia Daily Tribune.
The news story is about a protest targeting muscular dystrophy research taking place in dogs at the university. The studies are focused on developing treatments for the most common form of muscular dystrophy, called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. This article posted on the university website nicely explains the research.
We thought it might be helpful to provide an analysis of the article to identify all the things the university did right. We hope that when other institutions find themselves in a similar situation, they will follow Missouri’s lead.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is taking aim at University of Missouri’s use of dogs for muscular dystrophy research, but the university says the animals are treated humanely and its goal is to end suffering for people diagnosed with the disease.
Right out of the gate, the university’s message about the importance of the research is stated. The placement of this information up-front, has more to do with good reporting than anything the university did. However, it would not have been possible unless the institution made the conscious decision to defend the research instead of offering the all-to-common “no comment” response when asked about animal studies.
“Two and a half years ago we put out a press release showing he actually cured a dog with a form of Duchenne muscular dystrophy,” Basi said. “Based on that information, the research got picked up by a company and it went through the very long process of trying to get it into human clinical trials. Those started in December.”
Dogs with the disease are bred at a university facility. A group of between 50 and 70 dogs are kept at a given time. Dogs are used because their size is similar to that of a child.
Here’s what they did and what other organizations should do.
- They chose an effective spokesperson. Sometimes that is a researcher or a veterinarian. But it can also be a communications person who is well-versed on the science. In this case, university spokesman Christian Basi did a very nice job.
- The spokesperson highlighted recent events and milestones surrounding the incredible work the team is doing to develop a treatment for this disease.
- They also provided detailed information about the animals, which many institutions have concerns about sharing. But in reality, transparency builds trust and credibility.
“They specifically carry the disease,” Basi said. “Obviously we have to have the animal carry to the disease to display the symptoms, to know if the treatment will work.”
Basi said the animals are treated well, given playtime and human interaction on a daily basis.
“One of the concerns is human interaction with the animals,” Basi said. “The anials are fed, walked and played with every day. Some of these animals are admittedly not in good shape. They are displaying symptoms of muscular dystrophy.
“And without that, we would not have the answers we have today and we would not be that close to a cure.”
The spokesperson goes on to make several other key points and helps readers “connect the dots” between animal studies and human treatments. He talks about the well-being of the research animals, as well as the commitment of staff who care for the dogs.
However, he does not sugarcoat things. He explains that the animals do have muscular dystrophy, but also reminds us why the animals are bred with the disease and why there are no other options.
PETA members on campus Tuesday, however, decried the quality of life of the animals in the program, pointing to a recently posted a video of what it says is a similar laboratory at Texas A&M University showing the dogs struggling to walk, eat and breathe.
“We hope the dog experiments at Mizzou and other universities that currently perform these cruel and outdated experiments will stop and they will use modern, scientific, non-animal-related tests to continue their work and the dogs will be released, all the dogs confined here and around the country, into loving adopted homes,” Lebkuecher said.
This is where Missouri’s previous transparency really pays off. Because the spokesperson already spoke at length about the care of animals, PETA’s comments on this topic and their use of video from an entirely different university fall flat. The activists also bring up the topic of adoption.
Adoption is not an option for the dogs used in the research program at the university. Basi said because of their symptoms they are euthanized after the experiments.
“Unfortunately, with the dogs we have with muscular dystrophy, they are not in a position where we can comfortably adopt them out,” Basi said. “Their symptoms are too severe by the time we have to finish the experiments. In most, if not all cases, the dogs are euthanized.”
Basi said the university understands the concerns of organizations such as PETA, but it too is seeking a means to end the suffering of the more than 250,000 people in the U.S. affected by the disease.
“The researchers understand the importance, but they don’t do this lightly,” Basi said. “They don’t experiment on animals unless it’s absolutely necessary, unless there is no other way to find the answer. None of them want to create any environment, or do anything to an animal, that’s going to cause any type of suffering if it’s not necessary.”
In response, the university spokesperson provides a reasonable explanation of why the animals with muscular dystrophy cannot be adopted out. This is a difficult but honest assessment of the harms involved in animal research – something which scientists and institutions find hard to talk about. He then brings in another perspective, that of human patients impacted by muscular dystrophy.
One of the key reasons why Missouri did such an effective job in responding to these claims is that they were well-prepared. Upon learning of PETA’s planned protest, communication staff made key decisions about who would serve a spokesperson. They also clearly discussed-at-length, the things the public would want to know about and how they would address those issues.
While no institution likes to be the target of protests, the University of Missouri provided a nice template for other organizations facing criticism.
Of course, simply responding to activists is not enough. America’s science community also needs to proactively talk about their research, the care of animals in the benefits their studies provide. This is why Speaking of Research has authored an open letter, allowing the science community to voice their belief that communication about research in animals should no longer be muted. For more information about that effort and a longer-term campaign called the Speaking of Research Rapid Response Network.