(Taken from The Vancouver Sun, Thursday, August 12, 2010.)
VANCOUVER — Animal-rights activists have started a campaign to raise awareness about the “grim realities” of University of B.C. animal research, which they say have been hidden from the public for years even though the work is funded by taxpayers.
The campaign is worrying UBC officials, one of whom said he is afraid it could lead to violence because “there are nuts out there.”
“Few local residents are aware that UBC has such an extensive research program,” campaign organizer Brian Vincent told The Vancouver Sun. “Unfortunately, UBC has been less than forthcoming about its research activities.
“The public has the right to know that their tax dollars are paying for highly invasive research on animals, including experiments on cats.”
The group, which was formed several months ago but had not gone public until now, has been connecting with like-minded people over the summer via e-mail, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, and seeking information about animal research through freedom-of-information requests, some of which UBC has refused.
The activists are looking for details about nine medical researchers — including one who they say has been experimenting on cats since 1980 — and are distributing posters appealing to university employees to become whistleblowers.
Vincent says the group — Stop UBC Animal Research — has about 200 members, including students, faculty, other professionals and seniors.
The university admits it could do a better job of communicating with the public about its research and the difficult issue of animal experimentation.
But John Hepburn, vice-president of research, said UBC will not provide information about individuals because of privacy and safety concerns.
Although Hepburn said he believes the Vancouver group’s promise of a peaceful campaign, he’s worried about the potential for violence, which has occurred in some American states, where researchers who work with animals have seen their offices firebombed and their families threatened.
“I trust that the local people are responsible, but there are nuts out there,” he said in an interview.
Hepburn recently sent an e-mail to UBC staff members urging them to be wary of strangers in and around research facilities and to contact campus security if they receive any threats or encounter sidewalk protests.
“I encourage you to remain vigilant and familiarize yourself with university resources available to help mitigate potentially unpleasant and violent situations,” he wrote.
Vincent suggested the university’s warning was an overreaction, stating: “All of Stop UBC Animal Research’s activities have been entirely legal and peaceful. Those activities certainly do not warrant the inflammatory rhetoric in Dr. Hepburn’s e-mail.”
Although he is out of the province this week on holidays, Hepburn said the university has received 75 to 100 e-mails thus far — mostly from local activists but also from concerned people in places such as California and Britain — and he will respond to them as soon as he returns to work.
He said he will assure them that UBC research on animals — mostly genetically modified mice, but some larger animals as well — is tightly regulated by the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC), an independent organization that monitors animal experiments in publicly funded institutions.
Nevertheless, he agreed the issue is challenging for everyone, including researchers.
“I don’t think anyone wants to do research on animals, but sometimes it has to be done,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know any university in Canada that conducts medical research and doesn’t use animals.
Thousands of UBC research projects involve animals and while invasive surgeries are “not something you would want to happen to your pet kitty-cat,” there are always solid, scientific reasons for doing the work, he said.
UBC has a committee on animal care that includes lay people, scientists and veterinarians and reviews all animal research to ensure it complies with the CCAC’s guidelines and policies.
One member of the UBC committee is Shawn Eccles, chief animal protection officer for the British Columbia SPCA.
Eccles, a committee member for three years, said he agonizes over his conflicting roles and his knowledge that decisions by the committee can result in animals suffering.
“I struggle with this every day, but if I didn’t do it, who would?” he said in an interview. “Maybe I will serve my penance in hell.”
While not suggesting that other committee members are less committed to animal welfare, he noted that the requirement to include lay people does not specify that they must be animal lovers.
“I make it clear that it is fully my intention to speak for the animals.”
Geoff Urton, the SPCA’s animal-welfare manager, said the issue of animal research is ethically challenging and should be debated publicly. For that to happen, UBC will have to be more open about its research, he added.
“We understand that there are benefits from animal research [including] benefits to other animals,” Urton said. “But how do we measure what is an acceptable amount of suffering from one animal to help another?”
Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/fears+animal+activists+campaign/3388234/story.html#ixzz0wSm4uYrk