When the Beagle Freedom Project sued the University of Missouri in May alleging a public records violation, it didn’t get much national attention.
That came last week, when the California-based anti-animal-testing group started to call attention to a recent experiment in which MU researchers used beagles to test a new treatment for corneal ulcers.
“The University of Missouri purposely blinded six beagles and then killed them after their experiment failed,” a post on the group’s Facebook page said. Other posts stated that researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine had used an “experimental acid” on the dogs’ eyes.
The group then reminded readers of its pending lawsuit against the university and asked for donations.
The group’s vice president, Kevin Chase, said the post received more than 1.5 million page views and was shared with an email list of 40,000. Outrage over the experiment ensued on social media.
University spokespeople have spent the last week pointing out that the group’s account of the experiment was flawed and that the research met ethical standards that govern the treatment of laboratory animals.
A study published in the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists Journal said that in the experiment, the left eyes of six beagles, under sedation, were wounded and the corneal tissue scraped away. The beagles then were fitted with Elizabethan collars to prevent them from hurting their eyes any further.
Beagles were used because their eyes are similar to those of humans.
Three of the dogs were treated with a 0.2 percent solution of hyaluronic acid, a compound found in the skin that’s related to tissue repair. It’s often found is topical skin treatments. The other three dogs were treated with a different compound.
After 96 hours, researchers concluded that the healing times between the groups was not scientifically significant, and with the wounds healed they ended the experiment. Nothing in the published research suggests the beagles were permanently blinded. Later, the dogs were euthanized so that scientists could remove their corneas for research.
The Beagle Freedom Project’s post caused many to question the ethics of the MU researchers, particularly the decision to euthanize the animals.
Chase said his organization would have worked with MU to find the beagles adoptive homes.
The beagles “are just like people that have sight impairments,” said Chase, who called the experiment “egregious.” “They are capable of full and happy lives.”
Paula Clifford is a former researcher who is now the executive director for Americans for Medical Progress, a medical testing group devoted to public understanding of the humane use of animals in medical research.
She said the MU experiment appears to be well within existing standards, which allow animals to be euthanized when researchers see no other way to study affected tissues.
“Often scientists need to euthanize animals at the end of the study because they have to collect tissue on a microscopic level to get the data they need,” Clifford said.
It’s not uncommon for high-profile incidents involving animal testing to tap into or incite tension between those who believe that animal testing is regulated, safe and necessary to further medical discoveries that help both animals and humans — and those who believe animal rights and safety are exploited in the name of science and medical progress can be obtained through other means.
Unlike other major controversies involving university laboratory animals — such as when the United States Department of Agriculture cited the University of Kansas for 160 Animal Welfare Act violations in 2010 — the University of Missouri researchers have not been found guilty of any wrongdoing related to this issue.
The school was cited by the USDA in March for an incident in which a boar fatally injured another boar after knocking down a pen. But MU spokesman Christian Basi said the university passed a surprise inspection in May.
Outside researchers say that the use of emotional arguments by animal-rights groups to persuade others to join their cause is hardly new, but social media makes it easier than ever to share inflammatory claims.
“The instant broad reach of social media enables armchair quarterbacks to become purported experts overnight,” said Matthew Bailey, executive vice president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. “How individuals with little to no scientific background or training could present a well-informed argument about study design defies logic.”
Chase suggested that any conversation about how universities conduct experiments on animals is positive.
“If this kind of research does not impact your emotions or give you cause for concern, there might be something wrong for you,” he said. “Technically, yeah, they didn’t do something against the law. And maybe that’s part of the problem. We’re concerned that research like this was approved in the first place.”
Not regulated enough?
Chase said his group regularly files public records requests of university and other groups’ testing practices as part of its mission to rescue dogs and other animals from laboratories. But when it made a request of the University of Missouri’s laboratory program this spring, school officials said the request would cost $82,000 to complete.
The group decide to sue and found the published report on the beagle experiment this month while combing through other public sources regarding MU’s research program.
Part of their dismay, Chase said, was due to the university’s acknowledgment in its published study that the sample size of the beagles — six — was too small to effectively draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the hyaluronic acid, even if the treatment had been successful.
The University of Missouri released a statement this week affirming that animals were treated humanely and in compliance with its standards.
“All studies were performed in accordance with the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology ... and approved by the MU Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee,” the release stated.
Those standards require scientists to eliminate any “avoidable source of discomfort or distress” during experiments and include “reasonable periods of rest and readjustment.”
Animal laboratories are regulated by the federal Animal Welfare Act and inspected by the USDA. The law requires that experiments on animals be approved by Institutional Animal Care and Use committees made up of veterinarians, researchers and an outside member of the community.
The National Institutes of Health has specific requirements for research it funds, as do many research facilities accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International.
Critics say the required committees give research labs lots of wiggle room.
“Realistically, as long as the committee approves it, virtually anything can go,” said Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now.
“While there are standards that are supposed to require things like the use anesthesia, provide food and water, pain and relief, that animal committee can set aside those requirements if that researcher says it’s necessary to do so for the purpose of the experiment.”
He points out that researchers and scientists on the committee often are employed by the laboratory that wishes to conduct an experiment.
Clifford says scientists have little motivation to skirt state and federal standards.
The members of the Institutional Animal Care and Use committees take this very seriously, Clifford said. “It’s an institution’s reputation. They aren’t going to get funding for research if they aren’t” taking it seriously.
Animals, especially dogs, have played a crucial role in medical discoveries in the past century, she points out. According to the Foundation for Biomedical Research, dogs were involved with the discovery of alternative treatments for diabetes, heart disease and kidney dialysis.
“Our children receive vaccines thanks to this kind of research. Our parents and grandparents receive treatment at the hospital thanks to this research. Our pets live much longer, healthier lives thanks to this research,” said Bailey.
But sharing this message means combating another, perhaps more powerful image used by anti-animal testing groups — of animals being hurt, killed or exploited in the name of science, an image that can increase the number of people who believe that animals should have more rights and protection.
Gallup polling in 2015 suggests that a third of Americans want animals to have the same rights as people, a viewpoint that has increased by 25 percent since 2008. The role pets play in our lives has also changed, Clifford points out, in part because of the rabies vaccine. Pets, she said, are more often allowed to be in the house, in the owners’ beds and treated as part of the family.
Explaining what researchers do isn’t always easy to understand or neatly explained.
“Fear sells,” Bailey said. “The scientific community has a complex truth to tell, as opposed to a simple lie. The challenge is informing the public in an easy-to-understand way.”
On Facebook, the Beagle Freedom Project continued to share its message Wednesday.
It posted pictures of adorable beagles along with a picture of a beagle’s open eyeball gleaned from the publication on the experiment.
More than 3,000 viewers reacted to it and shared it more than 1,000 times.