New front in animal rights war

A recent legal dispute between the University of South Dakota and an animal rights group represents a new front to the battle between scientists and animal rights groups: state open records laws. Image: Wikimedia CommonsAsociacion Animalista Libera!Specifically, activists have turned to state open records laws to obtain information about biomedical research happening at state institutions. "

By | April 21, 2010

A recent legal dispute between the University of South Dakota and an animal rights group represents a new front to the battle between scientists and animal rights groups: state open records laws.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Asociacion Animalista Libera!
Specifically, activists have turned to state open records laws to obtain information about biomedical research happening at state institutions. "In addition to the federal [Freedom of Information Act], animal rights groups are also using state open records laws," linkurl:Frankie Trull,; president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, told __The Scientist__. "[Animal rights activists] have done this all over the country." The fear, said Trull, is that activists will distribute information in a way that invites violence or harassment of scientists who conduct animal research. "The question is, 'What are you going to do with the information?'" she asked. "If the intention on receiving the information was pure, there wouldn't be a problem at all. But if the information about you or your research is FOIAed and you get some threatening emails, it's not so good anymore." Although open records laws vary widely from state to state, most allow for the release of information held at state agencies and institutions, such as universities, unless that information compromises intellectual property rights or pertains to students or other minors. This particular battle includes University of South Dakota (USD) neuroscientist linkurl:Robert Morecraft; and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Morecraft's research uses non-human primates to identify brain areas that help human patients recover movement after brain trauma and to map brain areas that contribute to dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes inadvertent contortion or repetitive muscular motions. After PETA requested access to information about Morecraft's work, the USD and the South Dakota board of regents (in consultation with Morecraft) refused to release some material, based on exemptions written into the state's open records law. "We don't release information that's not been peer-reviewed and information that's proprietary unless it's protected by a patent," said linkurl:Laura Jenski,; USD's vice president for research. Jenski said that PETA asked for details of Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) protocols -- forms drafted for all research using animals -- which contained "information that was not yet published or that would be proprietary in nature." Jenski added that USD did agree to provide some information, redacting personal information and unpublished or proprietary data, to PETA. "I certainly am aware of newspaper articles, journal articles and other reports on the internet where there have been cases of harassment," she said. "However our response to PETA was based on our state law and what it exempts and what it does not exempt." Morecraft, who is currently funded by several USDA and NIH grants, told __The Scientist__ that his research has not been interrupted by PETA's request or the ensuing legal maneuvering. "We need to keep our work going so we can help people with brain injury, he said. "That's our motivating factor." Lori Kettler, senior counsel for PETA, told __The Scientist__ that her group has indeed been turning to state open records laws and lawsuits for alleged violations of those laws as a new tactic to get information about researchers and their work. But she said that the impetus for that strategic shift was state and federal agencies increasingly clamping down on that information. "The new trend is that it's getting more difficult to get the records," she said. "What's different now is that the facilities are putting a little more effort into not releasing the records." PETA first requested information about Morecraft's research under South Dakota state open records laws in 2008, after he and USD were cited for violating the Animal Welfare Act by not providing adequate psychological enrichment and for housing animals singly rather than in pairs or groups. PETA formally requested that the school make Morecraft's experimental protocol, along with videos and photos of his research, available. When USD denied parts of the request, PETA tried to take the issue to court, but the state denied a courtroom trial. So PETA tried again, filing another request for information on Morecraft's research in July of last year. Again the university denied PETA some of the information it requested. PETA tried to linkurl:file suit; again against USD last month. "Essentially, they're claiming that we have violated the open records laws in the state of South Dakota," said Jenski. PETA eventually withdrew its suit because of problems with the way the school was served with notice of the litigation. "Rather than go though the expense and time of arguing that point out," Kettler said, "we decided to voluntarily dismiss and reassess where we go from here." Kettler added that in the past year, PETA has filed "dozens and dozens" of similar requests for information under state open records laws. "Often we don't get what we feel we're entitled to under the law[s]." State open records laws can be quite complicated and can vary widely from state to state, said Jim Shekleton, South Dakota Board of Regents legal counsel. He suggested that if researchers are sent requests for information, they should consult their institution's legal minds right away. "When you open the mail and find this, the next step would be to the general counsel's office," he told __The Scientist__. "You do need to have someone look at this carefully." Kettler contended that PETA had no intention of inviting harm or intimidation on Morecraft by requesting information about his research. "We clearly have the name of the researcher involved," she said. Kettler added that the fear that making such information public would encourage harassment or violence in other states is unfounded. Still, Trull urged caution when researchers are faced with requests for information about their animal research. "I think [researchers] have to be cautious within the letter of the law," she said. "Over time we'll see more of this strategy."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Tips to safely provide records;
[15th January 2010]*linkurl:An Odyssey with Animals;
[4th December 2009]*linkurl:A Legal Challenge to Animal Research;
[December 2009]*linkurl:Animal rights activists charged;
[21st April 2009]


Avatar of: Marcia Kramer

Marcia Kramer

Posts: 1

April 21, 2010

It isn't necessary to create "problems" where there are none. Creating controversy between animal rights advocates and scientists merely drives a deeper division between the parties instead of encouraging dialogue that discusses the issue of real concern: how does particular animal research help humans? Please explain--and if the question can't be answered clearly and openly, the assumption must be that the answer is NO. \n\nFOIA requests on animal research to discover what research is being done and on what animals is hardly an act of war--and stating what "might" happen (harassment of researchers) instead of the reality (no harassment of researchers) is not helpful in the animal rights debate. Maybe the author needs to find a new topic upon which to speculate.\n

April 21, 2010

Arguably one of the most important constitutional rights in America, is our right to information when it involves actions of our government, that information is in the public interest. That information is what assists us in forming well reasoned policy and law.\n\nWhile I love science and appreciate the work of scientists, my right to access information is vital to our freedoms. \n\nIn all industries, in all groups, there are bad apples and bad apple barrels.\n\nIt was not until recently I learned of animals still being used for NASA exploration of Mars and auto industry world wide- I was talking about this to a friend and she didn't know about it either. The ads only show the often humorously portrayed crash test dummies. \n\nWhy, with technology today, the materials, the computers, the experience already garnered, would live animals be used for safety testing?\n\nIs that research bad? \n\nNot necessarily, but can information I have learned be used by me to encourage the use of computerized models vs animals - most definitely. Will it direct my political votes and consumer spending - absolutely. Will all of that affect lab funding in the auto industry? Yes.I haven't owned a car in six years because of it and global warming.\n\nThere are some instances where I think animal testing is necessary. \n\nLet us, the people, decide. In the meantime, there are legal measures any person or entity that is the subject of state or federal FOIA requests can take to protect their person or industry from harmful threats and acts.\n\n\n

April 21, 2010
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

April 21, 2010

"the fear that making such information public would encourage harassment or violence in other states is unfounded" - Kettler\n\nPETA has as their goal the end of animal research. They have openly encouraged violence in the past, and violence is quietly encouraged now. Their members justify firebombing, attacking researchers, harassment, and threats. There are numerous examples of this and important research has been shut down. \n\nFor Kettler to make the statement attributed to him is preposterous to the point of vile. It is an absolute lie. PETA and the animal rights agenda are using terrorist methods and they know it very well. \n\nThese obvious PETA shills posting to this article, targeting publications such as "The Scientist" is just part of the program.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 10

April 21, 2010

PETA has a real problem on their hands. While I may not agree with much of their agenda, some of it is actually quite reasonable. I support reasonable efforts to accomodate animal comfort and such aspects while accepting that it is still very necessary to use animals in research. Were PETA to have a clean record it would be bad policy to deny them access to records.\n\nThis is not the case at all. In the past PETA has effectively been a terrorist organization and this vile behavior haunts them to this day. They are now paying the price of distrust as well they should. They have not shed their terrorist mantle yet and until they prove beyond any doubt that their intentions are honorable and reasonable they should not have access to one iota of data that might aid their terrorist activities. I for one am not yet convinced they are a legitimate organization. Caution should be the guide when dealing with them until they have sufficient track record to suggest they are no longer terrorists.
Avatar of: Joan Burkholder

Joan Burkholder

Posts: 11

April 21, 2010

As a living entity, all life is due care and respect on this globe; but, all life ends one way or another. In nature it is frequently eat or be eaten and it has been this way for eons. I agree that all animals, research or otherwise should be treated as is appropriate for their species. \nA fact that I am hard fast against is the use of destruction, violent or otherwise, does not accomplish anything except discord. Those who engage in acts of destruction and violence are no better, maybe worse, than the lives they claim to want to protect. \nAs to use of animals in research, PETA needs to check the history of medicine before animals assisted us in furthering the well-being of people and animals. Likely most of PETA members are too young to remember dying infants that were medicated with substances toxic to humans. What would one of these persons say if it were their babies? Better my baby than a nice NHP? I don't think so!\nPeople and animals are far healthier today.\n
Avatar of: Corvus Mellori

Corvus Mellori

Posts: 1

April 21, 2010

I agree with Marcia. Is all of this terrorism propaganda what makes these scientists feel important? Surely their torture of animals does not.\n\nIf wanting to stop animal abuse, waste of tax dollars, human abuse and harm that comes from faulty animal testing predictions, and so on, makes folks terrorists then where the hell are we in terms of freedom?\n\nThese scientists want freedom to hide the info about their cruel and inhumane research that comes out of MY POCKET. I think I and everyone else has the right to know about every cent and where it goes as well as what is being done. These researchers have something to hide and they know what they do is cruel.
Avatar of: David Hill

David Hill

Posts: 41

April 21, 2010

I don't want people to violate the legal rights of other people who do research that is legal. At the same time, I fear the secrecy that has surrounded much research on other animals. Awareness of the facts cannot hurt, and an informed public may decide against cruelty to other animals in the name of technological advancement. The informed public would then change the laws pertaining to this kind of research, and then it is the research that would be illegal. Let's all work within the framework of the law. At the same time, our system of representative government does not work if secret activities are permitted. Can we handle the truth in matters like this? As a zoologist, I understand that the practice of medicine runs counter to natural controls on the dominance of one species, as well as natural selection. As individuals, we want the benefits of survival, with improved quality of life. As a society, we have no idea where this technological change is leading us. Perhaps the naked mole rat gives us a clue?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 34

April 21, 2010

The truth is people in general has lost faith on scientist. It is not difficult to know that the science is not remain curiosity driven science or the scientist have high human values and/or ethics. \nThe animal right activism may not have started if scientist were respected by the society like few decades ago.\nWho can decide if the experiment on animal is important to the extent of allowing the torture to animals? who can decide if the animal experiment will produce the results which will improve the human (and animal) quality of life?\n\nOr the experiments on animal is done solely to publish one more paper?\n\n\nI think that it is more important to establish the credibility of scientist among scientists and general public. I can show hundreds of paper - used thousands of animals (and tortured)- having absolutely no value expect for those who has published them! It is more important to weed out the "so called" scientist -rest of the issues (using animal or not) will be taken care of by itself\n\n\n\n\n
Avatar of: Mark Smith

Mark Smith

Posts: 1

April 23, 2010

Scientists have good reason to be concerned about these requests by PETA - PETA is making the requests as part of its ongoing campaign to "pressure" universities and scientists to abandon their lifesaving research. I agree that universities should be responsive to any requests seeking information that is required to be disclosed, but the universities should not give PETA any more information that the law requires. This type of situations is exactly WHY the state laws and the FOIA have exemptions - to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information! \n\nFurthermore, even if Kettler is sincere in her belief that the records will not be used by PETA to cause harm to the scientists, what is to prevent PETA from giving the information to violent extremists or posting it online?\n\nUniversities and scientists are well within their rights to challenge the release of information they legitimately believe they have a legal basis for withholding.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

May 20, 2010

I resent the implication that there is an "animal rights war" between scientists and animal rights activists. Scientists should be (and many are) just as concerned about animal welfare as animal rights activists. Scientists have an obligation as ethical beings and part of a society that generally cares about animal welfare, to minimize our negative impact on animals. \n\nScientists conducting research on animals should absolutely be obliged to justify that experiments are really justified and minimize cruelty. It is the right of the tax-paying public to be able to scrutinize records and be sure that this is the case. Of course they should not be allowed to threaten researchers, but that fear is no excuse to hide information, which will only make people more suspicious. \n\nIt is on the scientist to defend what they are doing. Researchers, instead of finding ways to hide information, should learn to justify to the concerned public why their research is justified and how they minimize animal torture (after all, that's what it is in most peoples' eyes) and why it is worth the outcome that comes from it. If they can do this, fears will be put to rest and the problem will go away. If they can't, PETA has a valid point.

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