As an unprecedented move, members of a confidential team overseeing animal research at the University of Washington (UW) have sued their own school to prevent their names from being passed on to an animal welfare organization. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been trying to obtain this information for more than a year, accusing the structure of the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Animal Use Committee (IACUC) of violating federal law. However, members of the committee, citing increased animal rights activism at the school, including protests at some scientists ’homes, say they fear PETA and other animal welfare organizations will use their names to target them.
“Animal welfare groups have created an atmosphere of fear at the university,” says school IACUC president Jane Sullivan, who was at the forefront of the lawsuit. “I’m a big believer in openness and transparency, but not if it threatens the safety of my committee members.” He and others fear that PETA’s move is the start of a nationwide effort: the advocacy group also wants to name Amacst IACUC members at the University of Massachusetts (UMass).
Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president at PETA, says her organization just wants the UW committee to comply with the law. “The IACUC is the last line of defense for animals in laboratories,” he says. However, PETA suspects the university committee is so biased towards research interests that it is not fulfilling its federal mandate. “The alleged fears of IACUC members about disclosing their names seem to be aimed more at hiding a flawed process than anything else.”
Every U.S. institution that receives federal funding for animal research must have an IACUC with five or more members, including scientists, veterinarians, and at least one non-scientist and one unrelated to the institution. According to the U.S. National Institute for Laboratory Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), which oversees these committees, this makeup should ensure that animals are properly cared for and that only necessary experiments are performed. Non-scientists can include ethicists and priests.
Most large institutions keep the names of members confidential (the president and chief veterinarian are often the exception). This allows the UW to hide the fact that its IACUC is not properly formed, argues Lisa Jones-Engel, senior scientific advisor at PETA. In September 2020, it began submitting public information requests to the school asking for the names of its current and former members.
Jones-Engel, who worked at the university as a biological anthropologist for 17 years, was in a unique position to attack the IACUC: she worked on it from 2017 to 2019. Towards the end of his term, he lodged a complaint with the university alleging that nearly 20 members of the committee did not include an ethicist and had “accumulated” against individuals who questioned animal testing; he argued that some members considered non-scientists were in fact closely related to animal research. Because of such concerns, he eventually left UW and joined PETA. The membership lists he is looking for will document these problems, he says.
Earlier last month, UW announced it would release the names, saying it was forced to do so by the state’s open registration law. Sullivan hired a lawyer and, along with four anonymous members of the IACUC, sued the school to stop the release. On February 24, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order stating that IACUC members ’fears of harassment“ sharply ”outweighed the“ incremental knowledge ”sought by PETA.
Susan Silk, former director of OLAF, agrees. Notes that the composition of the IACUC is subject to both internal and external controls; anyone can file a complaint with OLAW or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “I can’t imagine why the public should know the name of an IACUC member.”
Sullivan adds that neither government nor private laboratory oversight bodies have found a problem with the structure of the UW IACUC. He believes the real purpose of PETA is to target committee members.
In addition to demonstrations at the university at UW, which has one of the largest animal use programs in the country, PETA supporters recently protested against the homes of two officials associated with the school’s primate facility. Individuals wearing monkey masks held signs depicting animals in cages and asked, “Do your neighbors know you tortured monkeys?” Sullivan said activists left threatening emails and voicemails to university scholars, and IACUC members were compared to Nazis at committee meetings online. “There is no doubt that the effect is intimidating and frightening,” he says.
Jim Newman, director of strategic communications for Americans for Medical Progress, which proclaims the need for animals in the laboratory, agrees. “You don’t go to someone’s house to make a general opinion,” Newman says. – You say: We know where you live.
Guillermo objects that PETA’s demonstrations were “peaceful” and “legal.” He says his organization “has not encouraged or ever encouraged its supporters to send or leave anything other than polite messages”.
Sullivan admits that neither he nor the IACUC veterinarian, whose names are both public, were harassed at home. But he says it’s not just PETA that is worried about what more radical activists might do about disclosure, as happened in “Pizzagate” and related incidents during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “My biggest fear is that someone else will take things into their own hands.”
Next month, the judge who issued the restraining order may either lift it or make it final, although PETA may then appeal. A higher court ruling could set a legal precedent at the state or even national level.
Meanwhile, PETA has applied for UMass Amherst membership in the IACUC. The organization claims the committee was set up incorrectly and its secrecy violates state law on open meetings.
Michael Malone, vice chancellor of UMass Amherst, fears the strategy could spread. “If people start showing up in your house, where will it be for IACUC staff?” says. “People on these committees should ask, ‘A good animal model?’ No, “Who am I going to call on the way to the grocery store?”