In 2009, a cat named Robert from the Davis County animal shelter was purchased for $15 by researchers at the University of Utah. Robert was taken to a research lab at the U where he was experimented on in unusual ways, including having a hole drilled in his skull and electrodes attached to his brain. Pictures taken during an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, more commonly known as PETA, show the orange tabby with a large oval node sticking out the middle of his head.
PETA’s undercover investigation revealed a number of other shocking insights into the U’s animal research. For example, the animal rights group claims the U purchased another cat from the Davis County shelter that gave birth to eight kittens. When the kittens were a week old, a “chemical was injected into their brains to cause fluid to build up,” according to PETA. Soon after, they all died.
Other things revealed in the investigation, according to PETA, include that “mice and rats were caused to develop enormous tumors and painful, deadly illnesses,” and “rats and monkeys had holes drilled into their skulls in invasive brain experiments.” Undercover investigators allege researchers intentionally withheld water from monkeys to coerce them into participating in experiments.
As a result of PETA’s investigation and subsequent legal suit, Robert was removed from the U’s laboratory and placed for adoption. In March 2010, Davis County animal shelters announced they would no longer sell animals to research laboratories.
While PETA’s 2009 investigation created a stir at the time, it hardly put an end to questionable practices by U researchers. In November, 2017, the Ohio-based animal rights group Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! filed a complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture accusing the U of a “long-term pattern of negligence that deserves a meaningful penalty,” according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
The lawsuit was filed after the animal rights group discovered three animals had been killed during experiments at the university, including a rabbit, a marmoset and a macaque. The rabbit’s death was particularly shocking, as it was placed under anesthesia and, as a result of miscommunication, was left without oxygen for four minutes.
Just a month later, PETA filed another lawsuit against the U with the Department of Agriculture, this one alleging a lamb was killed inhumanely in April, 2017, and two rabbits suffered “prolonged” euthanasia, the Deseret News reported.
While the U didn’t respond to specific allegations, manager of science communication Julie Kiefer told the Deseret News the school “is committed to carrying out exceptional research to advance veterinary and human medicine, health and well-being. We recognize that high-quality science and humane animal care are inseparable, and we are devoted to ensuring the human care and use of laboratory animals in our research programs.”
What is to be made of animal experimentation in university research labs? Princeton University bioethics professor Peter Singer is well-known for his 1975 book “Animal Liberation,” which is said to have started the animal rights movement. In the book, Singer argued because animals are sentient beings that feel pain just like humans, they ought to be given moral consideration. He also criticized product-testing research that exploited and tortured animals for no reason other than to sell makeup.
While Singer has clearly stated he is against animals being used for cosmetic testing, his position on animals being used in potentially groundbreaking medical research is less clear. In 2006, commenting on Parkinson’s disease research that was said to have helped 40,000 people at the expense of the 100 monkeys used in experimentation, Singer said, “I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment.”
When he received backlash for his comments, Singer defended his position in The Sunday Times in a straightforward manner.
“If an experiment on a small number of animals can cure a disease that affects tens of thousands, it could be justifiable,” the ethicist wrote. “Since I judge actions by their consequences, I have never said that no experiment on an animal can never be justified. I do insist, however, that the interests of animals count among those consequences, and that we cannot justify giving less weight to the interests of nonhuman animals than we give to the similar interests of human beings.”
Whether or not animal experimentation at the U is justified largely depends on the medical and societal value of the research it is producing. At any rate, there is never a justification for neglecting animals or experimenting on animals in cruel and unusual ways. The investigations of animals rights groups reveal U research facilities have a number of practices that need to be looked into or that need to be ended.