Be on the lookout for the February issue of The Blue & White, on campus now! Bwog will again honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting features from the upcoming issue. Such treats include the first part of a discussion on the Columbia School, a visit to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and a talk about, well, self-pleasure. Here, Anna Bahr unravels the story behind Columbia’s animal testing practices.
“The most humane way to do it is to break the neck. You come up behind it so it can’t see and snap its neck backwards. It doesn’t even squeak.” According to Nikki Tomm, lab assistant in Dr. Rene Hen’s research lab at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, that’s how to kill a mouse. In scientific studies, the euthanization of animal models is euphemistically termed “sacrifice”—martyrdom for scientific advancement. Tomm describes the sacrifices as respectful and methodical—if sometimes apathetic—procedures upon which biomedical innovation is entirely dependent. In Tomm’s experience, the labs adhere to a logical syllogism: research requires functional animal models; mistreating animal models is tantamount to harming their functionality and destroying their potential as an experimental asset; the mistreatment of a lab animal jeopardizes the research itself.
Columbia has an inconsistent history with this rational rule of thumb. In 2003, the University was the target of a national campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Catherine Dell’Orto, a veterinarian at the medical school campus, played whistle blower, alerting the University to what she viewed as unethical violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) in surgeries performed by a research team involved in developing stroke treatments. She described baboons—many of which had an eye removed to interrupt blood flow to the brain—as being “left to die” in their cages without “adequate” veterinary care. In an interview with the Associated Press, Dell’Orto accused the University of “almost purposeful neglect on the part of [its] veterinarians.”
Columbia’s initial internal investigation resulted in a statement which detailed that “the investigative committee found no significant protocol violations in the conduct of the research in the cases examined.” Dissatisfied with Columbia’s lackluster response, Dell’Orto called upon PETA to file a complaint with the National Institute of Health and launch a more public offensive. PETA enthusiastically accepted the request in an anti-Columbia crusade devoted to the “grotesque abuses in laboratories at the University,” that included an involved website (columbiacruelty. com) with a “voice over” from “Alec Baldwin” supporting the cause (read: a computer-generated voice very decidedly not Mr. Donaghy), and grainy video footage of a baboon with a metal rod in its skull. A disregard for the legally-required “minimization of pain […] proper use of anesthetics […and] standard for the psychological well-being of nonhuman primates,” seems obvious.
The effort resulted in a subsequent US Department of Agriculture investigation of the labs, which found “no indication that the experiments […] violated federal guidelines,” although it did hold Columbia responsible for the “inadequate or questionable” care of 11 animals. Nevertheless, Dr. Sander E. Connolly, cheerfully dubbed “chief vivisector” of “Columbia’s Death Squad” by PETA, discontinued experiments due to threats from animal rights activists. Dr. Connolly, who declined to be interviewed for this article, still works with animals in his neuroscience labs at the medical school. The University was fined $2,000 for violations of “the minimum acceptable standard” that is the AWA. The other “careless caretakers” targeted in the investigation included Dr. Mahmet Oz (yes, Oprah’s go-to doc allegedly killed a litter of puppies without fully anesthetizing them) and Dr. Raymond Stark, who is no longer involved in animal research. Both doctors declined to comment, though Dr. Stark explained in an email that he “still receives hate mail referring to the PETA web site [sic] accusations.”
In a letter to the USDA in 2004, PETA further accused the University of managing to “curry favor” with the USDA to evade a more thorough investigation and a heavier fine—a strategy Justin Goodman, Associate Director of Laboratory Investigations Department at PETA, says is all too common.
“Unfortunately, the USDA inspectors and University administrators and faculty are far too close and friendly—especially when you consider that the same inspectors go to the University every year. Inspectors see what they have been told to see […] The law allows just about anything to be done to animals, no matter how painfully invasive. There is not any experiment on any animal prohibited by law as long as the right paperwork is filled out,” said Goodman.
Goodman’s hyperbolic accusation illuminates the limited federal legislation governing the treatment and use of animals in research labs on university campuses. The 1966 Animal Welfare Act was designed to enforce a degree of humanity and establish a basic standard of treatment for warmblooded animals. Coldblooded creatures, farm animals, birds, rats, and mice are exempt from federal regulation—a surprising exclusion, as rodents compose over 90 percent of animal models in biomedical research.
This purported lack of oversight in lab protocol is unfamiliar to many Columbia professors. “There are extremely strict regulations. Certainly much stricter than those governing any animals raised for food. We have to have scientific justification, data showing your approach is valid, proof that non-living tissue is not a viable alternative,” said Dr. Sarah Wooley, an Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Columbia who specializes in the impact of social communication on bird behavior. Columbia’s labs are (hypothetically) monitored by the University’s own Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which subjects researchers to a direct line of questioning to determine the absolute necessity of their experimenting on living animal tissue.
PETA is notorious for its extremist rhetoric and outrageous publicity stunts (recall the 66-square foot photographic poster of Holocaust victims spliced next to a picture of factory farm chicken cages reading “To Animals, All People Are Nazis”). Despite PETA’s zealotry, certain facts cannot be ignored, and the track record of the Ivy League in particular is far from spotless. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, nine animals, including three primates, died in the last two years alone at Harvard; one was found dead after being sent through a mechanical cage washer. Yale was recently cited by the USDA after several baboons endured burns and blisters following an experiment. According to Justin Goodman, labs associated with Columbia were cited with 23 violations from 2008 to 2011.
As Dr. Woolley points out, all research systems are inherently flawed. “There will always be someone who is going to violate protocol. It’s not surprising that this kind of thing occasionally happens. It’s like patient care in hospitals or the dentist. Things go wrong sometimes.” The violations and lack of veterinary care in Columbia’s labs were shocking and avoidable, but seemingly the mistakes of individuals—not exactly a mastermind sadist’s scheme to impose suffering on captive lab models.
The term “sacrifice” is less a euphemism than an exercise in careful word choice. Lab models are subjected to physically damaging experimentation potentially traumatic enough to make humans unsuitable alternatives. Animal research is, perhaps, best viewed in a purely utilitarian sense: pain now will go a long way later. As Dr. Woolley explains, researchers involved in disease rely on and respect their models for providing an opportunity that she thinks is necessary: “Biomedicine is one of the most beneficial things to grace human culture. There would be no curing of any disease you can name had animal research not been used.”
To curate a climate of fear and harassment surrounding research which necessarily requires living models is not only reductive, it is unrealistic. Given that 71 of the Nobel Prizes for Medicine in the past 103 years were awarded to scientists who used animals in their work, inappropriately invasive investigations into biomedical experimentation will never garner enough public support to make substantive change. No one advocates the nonessential suffering of animals, but protective mechanisms are in place and scientists have ethical and legal obligations to engage with animals only when absolutely necessary. Until complex diseases can be reproduced in cell cultures, alternatives impede invaluable medical achievements. The shoddy records of Columbia and the Ivy League must be attributed to tragic human error, and those responsible must be held accountable, but they exist as terrible anomalies in an otherwise exceptionally productive field. One which credits its successes to the valuable lives of its models.