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UW-Madison Cat Study Resolution

Eric P. Sandgren, VMD, PhD
Director, Research Animal Resources Center

November 15th, 2013

On Sept. 30, 2013, the National Institutes of Health Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) issued a report regarding allegations of noncompliance in a University of Wisconsin-Madison hearing study involving cats.  Based on a press release from PETA, we have to wonder if they and we are actually reading the same report.  The NIH (OLAW) report on allegations made by PETA is fully supportive of what has been UW-Madison’s position all along, which is that the cats did not suffer, received appropriate veterinary care, and participated willingly in the behavioral experiments that were a part of the study.  Not a single one of PETA’s specific allegations could be supported.

See for yourself.  Here is a letter that OLAW wrote to us after they visited the animals and the facilities with a team of three veterinarians, including one from USDA.

Here is the final report.

As you will see from reading these documents, they are highly complimentary of UW-Madison’s care for these animals.  Specifically, the team reported that:

  1. “All seven cats were found to be in excellent clinical condition, namely having good body condition, good hair coats, were very well socialized with the other cats as well as people, and exhibited normal behavior.
  2. One cat was observed performing in one of the approved behavioral study procedures and was found to be a willing participant.
  3. None of the cats showed any lesions or signs of pain, distress, or adverse responses during handling, transport, examination, or during the experimental trial.
  4. Cats were demonstrated entering cat carriers or restraint bags cooperatively on command when shown the objects.
  5. The AV and clinical veterinarians were knowledgeable and caring and were familiar with the cats, their clinical conditions and history, as well as the details of the study.
  6. The animal care supervisor and caretaker were familiar with the sanitization procedures for the cats’ primary housing, their hammocks, and related equipment and readily provided documentation of appropriate cleaning regimens.
  7. The Pl and technicians were very concerned about the wellbeing of the cats and handled them carefully and gently during transport and behavioral trials; they monitored the animals closely while the cats were performing tasks in the specialized acoustic recording room.
  8. All individuals involved with handling and observing the cats were trained in the recognition of signs of pain or distress, and verified that any animal health concerns are promptly reported to the veterinary staff; veterinarians are empowered to remove animals from study if wellbeing is in question.
  9. Refinements made to the study since its inception included enhanced veterinary oversight and support during surgeries, stricter oversight of fluid and anesthetic administration during surgery, and improved overall monitoring.
  10. Review of the medical records showed that superficial infections of the skin tissue surrounding the head caps have occurred sporadically over the past six years in these cats and were treated successfully.”

In addition, the OLAW team provided several recommendations for how we could “further enhance the health and welfare of the cats.”   These fell in the category of refinement, and we were glad to accept and implement all of them.

PETA leveled very serious charges against UW-Madison multiple times.  USDA and OLAW investigated all of them, and in each case PETA’s charges were shot down.  During OLAW’s investigation, NIH suspended the investigator’s use of funding to perform invasive procedures (such as new surgeries), but did not suspend the overall grant.  The professor was able to continue using the cats in his studies to generate new data.  A suspension of procedures like that is a very unusual event.  However, after completing the investigation, OLAW saw that the suspension was not warranted and ALL funding on this grant has been reinstated.

The final outcome: none of PETA’s charges were found to be valid, even after multiple and prolonged investigations.  There was plenty of collateral damage, though.  An investigator’s time was taken away from important research that benefits people who may benefit from cochlear implants.  The investigator and UW-Madison were subjected to groundless harassment, and our reputations were falsely tarnished.

Hundreds of hours of time by UW-Madison staff and by the regulatory agencies were taken up to look into the false charges, at a cost to the public of tens of thousands of dollars.  The whole storm stirred up by PETA was just a waste of everyone else’s time and money.  Of course, PETA used it extensively for fundraising, and continues to do so, even in the face of proof that they were wrong.