University responds to PETA request for state audit

PETA is an organization that makes sure animals are being treated ethically. Graphic from PETA.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called for a state audit of the University of Rhode Island last month, claiming that the University unjustly euthanized animals during COVID-19-related lab closures. 

PETA first released a statement in April, when the organization wrote to the senior leadership at the University in response to their COVID-19 protocol relating to research. In the original letter, PETA referenced a letter that URI sent to its researchers that said non-essential animal research needed to be “drawn down or halted,” and “preparations should be made [for long-term studies] to reduce animal counts to [the minimum number] needed to complete study goals.”

After the April complaint, the University responded and reassured PETA that no sacrifice of animals had taken place at URI due to the pandemic, according to Vice President for Research and Economic Development Peter Snyder.

“We have never culled animals from any colony that we have any control of,” Snyder said.

PETA then called for the audit itself on Sept. 15, sending a letter to Dennis E. Hoyle, the Rhode Island auditor general, requesting the state investigation into how the state appropriations were used regarding animal testing at the University.

PETA also submitted claims on approximately 80 other universities throughout the United States, according to PETA Vice President of International Laboratory Methods Shalin Gala. 

Gala said that PETA received information from a URI whistleblower expressing concerns about lizards in Professor Jason Kolbe’s lab during the early stages of the pandemic. 

“[The whistleblower] indicated that [URI] closed its campus for coronavirus and wasn’t going to be letting people back into the labs to take care of the animals, and if nothing was done, the whistleblower feared that the animals would die from lack of nutrition,” Gala said. 

There was no legitimacy to this claim about Kolbe’s lab, according to Snyder. 

“There were actually no lizards in that lab at that time at all,” said Snyder.

According to Gala, URI received $80 million in the 2019 fiscal year from the state of Rhode Island. Gala suggested that some of this funding was likely used to buy, breed, trap or experiment on animals for research purposes. 

“In our view, there should be no such thing as nonessential animal research taking place in laboratories, especially at the expense of taxpayers,” Gala said. “Now is really the time to start phasing out all of these crude and misguided animal experiments that don’t advance human health. So that’s our motivation for writing to URI and the call for the audit.” 

Animal research at URI is a matter treated with the utmost respect and care, according to Snyder. Research involving animals is reviewed and maintained by the University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). The research practiced involving animals is ethically equivalent to that of human research, Snyder said.

The ethical care of any animals that the University is responsible for is taken very seriously, according to Snyder. He said that all state, local and federal best practice and humane guidelines for the treatment of animals in their care are followed.

According to Ted Myatt, associate vice president for research administration, the University continued to care for all their animals on campus during the pandemic; the only difference was that they put a halt to starting new animal-based projects. 

“The animals that we had on campus we continued to care for,” Myatt said. “The folks from the [Comparative Biology Research Center] continued to take care of the animals. They were on campus everyday just like normal. We just weren’t starting new projects essentially.” 

Animal research is only conducted at the University when the potential benefit of this research is unmatched by any alternative computer simulation or modeling, according to Snyder. Examples of this research include research on novel treatments for cancers, understanding climate change and protection of coral reef health, developing new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias or trying to figure out treatments for aggressive viruses that may lead to pandemics. 

According to Myatt, many of the animal-based research classes and projects don’t involve euthanized animals. While approximately two courses use dissection methods for experimentation, many of the animal classes take place at Peckham Farm where students learn how to properly care for the farm animals.

Myatt also emphasized that the IACUC sets the guidelines for fair animal treatment and experimentation, making sure the animals receive the best care possible. 

PETA sees animal-based research as morally and ethically wrong, as animals lack the ability to consent to participate. 

“They have a very strong sense of the ability to suffer,” Gala said. “We as humans who are caring for them need to take that into consideration. If there’s a capacity to suffer, which animals have, and they’re not able to consent to be used and eventually harmed and killed in experiments, the ethical principle is that we shouldn’t be using them and that we should switch to other methods of testing.” 

The University, however, believes that animal research is “essential to the teaching, outreach, and research missions of major research universities across the globe,” per their statement to PETA. 

“This is an issue that we are passionate about in terms of protecting the welfare of lives, any life that’s in our keeping,” Snyder said. “We stand by our public statement and I don’t see any potential that we would ever deviate in our practice as I described it.”

As of right now, the auditor general has not made any response to the calls for an audit from PETA.