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.”