Central Valley

UC withholds details on animal research

The University of California has begun withholding public records that detail how animal research is done and what scientists hope to learn, saying when people know such things, it leads to crime.

The university contends that recent attacks on the homes and cars of researchers, including three attempts to set fires in the Los Angeles area and one doorstep scuffle in Santa Cruz, make greater secrecy crucial.

"It would be irresponsible for the university to wait around until someone goes to the hospital or worse before taking appropriate action," said UC attorney Christopher Patti.

Activists suggest that what UC really wants to suppress are the wrenching details of electrodes and restraints, surgeries and deaths, that opponents use to argue that animal research must stop.

"It's a way to try to silence dissent and increasing public revulsion," said Jeff Kerr, general counsel for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Last year, UC Merced opened a 5,000-square-foot vivarium, a facility where animals are raised and kept for laboratory observation. Much of the research performed at the facility will involve study into infectious diseases and the immune system, as well as some stem cell research. Although UC Merced's vivarium is relatively smaller than facilities at older universities like UC Davis, Hoglund said there is space for it to expand as the school's research programs grows.

Among the records UC has withheld recently are daily health-care logs for monkeys, post-mortem exams called necropsies, and research protocols, which describe how studies are designed. One campus, UCLA, is refusing to disclose how many nonhuman primates it experiments on.

While such documents can be used to inflame, they have other purposes. The Humane Society relies on public records to expose violations of cruelty laws. Opponents of tobacco research have used them to raise questions about whose money UC researchers should take.

UC is also addressing attacks on animal research on the legislative front. Written by UC with input from the biotech industry, Assembly Bill 2296 originally offered broad protections to employees of virtually any business that handled animals. It was so sweeping the Humane Society feared it would imperil its undercover probes, like the one at a California slaughterhouse that recently triggered the nation's largest beef recall.

The bill has been scaled back to apply only to university researchers, restricting what personal information can be posted on the Internet. But all involved say the forces behind the legislation aren't going away.

From farms to labs, Americans are torn over how to treat animals. Those wishing society were gentler with other living creatures are equally torn, with protest strategies ranging from debate to name calling to violence.

UC contends the tactics used by animal activists are growing increasingly disturbing. In October, a window was broken and a garden hose shoved into a UCLA researcher's home, causing $20,000 in damage. UC Berkeley has logged six broken windows and three scratched or graffitied cars among its researchers and staff members since August.

Along with the crimes have come legal actions that many on campus find offensive: strident e-mails, phone calls to personal numbers, and the leafleting of at least one child's soccer game because a player's father does animal research at UC Berkeley.

Dallas Hyde, director of the California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis, said animal activists protested outside his Davis home in 2003, and he assumes the vandals who targeted his mailbox in 2007 and his son's truck in 2006 were also against animal research because vandalism is otherwise unheard of on his street.

He worries about what animal activism might mean for the future. "The great fear we have is that somehow it's going to interrupt the level of science done in this country," Hyde said.

That concern extends beyond university researchers. Nationwide, animals used in education and research, from medical products to pet foods, are estimated to number more than 25 million annually.

Amanda Carson Banks, president of the California Biomedical Research Association, keeps a list of lab animals stolen and buildings and cars spray-painted at California businesses that use animals or work with those who do.

Banks said she knows of three California researchers -- out of a statewide biotech work force of 267,000 -- who have abandoned animal research in the past few years because they fear attacks.