Researcher Vows To Continue Work Despite Animal Activists' Assault

For 32 years, Richard Aulerich, a professor of animal science at Michigan State University, has dedicated his work to one area, mink research. An attack in late February by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), however, destroyed his lab and most of his current data. Aulerich now finds himself in the center of what has become an archetypal struggle between those who favor animal rights and those who say they are engineering progress through the use of live animals. Mink research at MSU began in t

By | June 8, 1992

For 32 years, Richard Aulerich, a professor of animal science at Michigan State University, has dedicated his work to one area, mink research. An attack in late February by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), however, destroyed his lab and most of his current data. Aulerich now finds himself in the center of what has become an archetypal struggle between those who favor animal rights and those who say they are engineering progress through the use of live animals.

Mink research at MSU began in the late 1940s with the construction of a mink ranch on campus, where scientists studied the animals' reproductive habits and community to assist the fur-farming industry. Aulerich's work, however, has centered more on the effects of the environment on the mink as a species, involving feeding them fish from certain regions of the United States and testing them dermally with toxicants. Both experiments were later used in determining safe polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) levels in water. Because the mink is considered a model species for humans, research has also been directed toward finding the cause of a certain mink subspecies' congenital deafness in a search for a possible solution to human deafness.

But Aulerich must now concentrate on rebuilding his lab. He vows to continue, even in the face of ALF threats such as the spray-painted message "The otters are next," referring to otters housed in the building next to the minks that are also used in the same experiments, and ALF's own statement in a press release that this is its "first" incident at MSU.

"It'll be like starting over," Aulerich says. "We had one of the best mink libraries in the world, and it's gone. They even destroyed all of the animals' identification."

According to Aulerich, all of the minks were set free from the East Lansing, Mich., lab, though most have been recaptured. The lost animals, along with destroyed data, journals, reprints, slides, and equipment, provide a difficult obstacle for Aulerich to overcome.

"We're trying to get on track as best we can," Aulerich says. "We have managed to duplicate our data, and some of it we have tried to pick up where it left off before the fire. But some of it is lost forever."

Efforts to contact ALF prove fruitless. ALF is an underground organization that has claimed credit for similar acts, such as two attacks on mink facilities at Oregon State and Washington State universities, where an estimated $200,000 in damage was done and lab animals, including six minks and seven coyotes, were taken or released.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an organization based in Washington, D.C., that communicates with the public on ALF's behalf, portrays a less benevolent picture of Aulerich's experiments than that painted by the researcher himself. A press release issued by PETA on ALF's behalf following the attack stated that animals were force- fed with pesticides and dioxin, and suffered severe paralysis, convulsions, and gastric ulcers. In addition, the press release alleged that staff members at the MSU facility were given key chains made from the minks' feet.

Fred Poston, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at MSU, says that he has investigated ALF's allegations and found them groundless.

"Even in those cases in the past where the animals were exposed dermally to neurotoxins, they were taken from the experimental group when they showed adverse signs," Poston says. "They were not allowed to suffer," and were "humanely euthanized."

Responding to allegations that minks' feet were used as keychains, Poston says that he has questioned Aulerich's colleagues and assistants and can find no evidence of such activity. He calls ALF's allegations "alarmist crap."

In its press release, PETA called Aulerich's work "scientifically worthless," because the conclusions drawn by Aulerich have been that the effects on minks of the experiments are "similar to those reported for other species."

Aulerich, however, insists that his work can benefit, and possibly even save, the mink as a species, since in many areas, especially around the Great Lakes, populations of mink have either decreased dramatically or disappeared altogether. He says he is convinced that ALF is against his work only because it has applications in the mink harvesting industry.

"I think that people should consider that this is ALF's point of view," Aulerich says. "I would never spend my life doing anything considered useless."

According to PETA, animal rights activists are "incensed" that Aulerich receives funding from such federal agencies as the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Commerce, the Environmental Pro- tection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"I don't think that Dr. Aulerich has ever produced any research that benefits one single animal in any way," says Steven Simmons, a spokesman for PETA. "We'd like people to know exactly what their tax dollars are doing."

Simmons says that ALF acted on reports from people who had access to Aulerich's lab as well as photographs of the animals' living conditions.

In addition to Aulerich's work, the research of Karen Chou, an assistant professor of animal science, was destroyed in the break-in. Chou works with mouse and boar sperm to determine how toxicity affects the reproductive performance of a species--ironically, a method that ALF condones because it uses sperm rather than animals.

Chou says that she has no estimate of the damage done, since most of her findings were stored on disks destroyed in the fire. But, she adds, she will continue her work.

"I thought that this [recovering data] would take a couple of months," Chou says. "Now I realize it will take much longer."

Most of Chou's time since the break-in has been spent sorting through the disks left behind, she says, and every day she discovers a new book, file, or slide that she needs to buy again or reproduce.

"I already worked 50 or 60 hours a week as it is," Chou says. "So it is hard for me to work even harder to get the work done that I need to."

Chou is firm in her conviction that research is heading in the right direction by using sperm instead of live animals, but adds that "the use of living animals is unavoidable to an extent" because certain effects cannot be studied using reproductive cells.

Regarding the destruction of Chou's lab, PETA's Simmons says that although the damage to Chou's data may not have been intentional, "her objectives are questionable, whether or not her processes are just." PETA and ALF are against any commercial application of animal research and the use of federal dollars to promote such work.

Federal regulation of animal research such as Aulerich's comes mainly from the 1966 Animal Welfare Act and its 1971 and 1985 amendments. The act now protects all animals in any experiment, regardless of funding sources, and provides USDA with the authority to conduct unannounced inspections of research facilities and the power to fine them for lack of compliance.

Sheila Brown, acting senior grant specialist for the Grants Operation Branch of EPA, says that the agency also audits its funded research.

"We try to monitor the project through special conditions put into the agreement to establish that it complies with various EPA [animal welfare] regulations," says Brown.

Such special conditions and regulations, according to USDA spokesman Larry Miller, include checking to ensure that a grant proposal has commercial and human benefits and, once research is under way, that the scientist is meeting such objectives. USDA also works in conjunction with university panels that monitor the conditions of live animal experimentation.

Matthew Devins is a freelance writer based in York, Pa.


Advertisement

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
NuAire Inc.
NuAire Inc.
Advertisement
The Scientist
The Scientist
Life Technologies