Content warning: Animal abuse
On Wednesday, March 30, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called on University of Connecticut Interim President Dr. Radenka Maric to reimburse almost $2 million in taxpayer funds due to the “non-essential” killings of rabbits that took place last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a press release.
The rabbits were allegedly killed by UConn experimenter Harvey Swadlow on March 23, 2020 and were considered extraneous to Swadlow’s testing in response to the pandemic.
“…We urge the University of Connecticut to reimburse any and all federal and state funds used to acquire, breed, confine, and/or maintain the animals used in experiments whom UConn and/or Harvey Swadlow categorized as unnecessary, extraneous, noncritical, nonessential, ramped down, disposable, or nonpriority and/or…euthanized in response to COVID-19,” PETA research associate Shriya Swaminathan said in a letter to Maric.
According to the letter, the taxpayer funds were used to fund laboratory experiments, including those in which the animals were deemed extraneous.
“No amount of money refunded by UConn to taxpayers can bring back the animals who the university deemed non-essential to experiments and killed,” said PETA Vice President Shalin Gala. “That said, taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for such waste, and paying back these misused funds would send a strong signal that UConn cannot continue business as usual.”
According to PETA’s press release, stainless steel bars were surgically fixed to rabbits to immobilize their heads and restrain their bodies, and they were also deprived of food and water. The experiment’s purpose was to study visual processing during different waking states.
In addition to the letter to Maric, PETA filed complaints with the National Institutes of Health, the National Eye Institute and the Connecticut state auditor, according to the press release.
According to Gala, the university was aware of the National Institutes of Health’s policies regarding the minimization of experimental use of animals.
“UConn is aware of these policy provisions to minimize and replace the use of animals in experiments, yet the university apparently continued to use and kill animals it deemed non-essential to the experiments at the expense of taxpayers, contrary to the [National Institutes of Health’s] principles,” Gala said.
According to university spokesperson Stephanie Reitz, Swadlow euthanized the rabbits due to uncertainty regarding the pandemic and restrictions to protect human health.
“…Due to the unfolding COVID pandemic, developing state and federal restrictions to protect human health, and the resulting uncertainties about the ability to continue work, the researcher elected to end the participation of two rabbits involved in a research study,” Reitz said.
According to Reitz, the use of rabbits has been ongoing for the past several years.
“These two rabbits were part of a study since 2014 that provided important information on the neural mechanisms by which drowsiness and alertness influence visual perception,” Reitz added.
Reitz said UConn expects all researchers to maintain “high ethical standards for animal care and use,” referencing the university’s Animal Care and Use Program, an initiative that promotes humane treatment of animals.
“The University expects all of its animal facilities, programs, and researchers to maintain high ethical standards for animal care and use, and to follow applicable federal, state, and local laws, regulations, policies, and guidelines,” Reitz said. “UConn’s commitment to ensure high standards of laboratory animal care and use is demonstrated by the continued accreditation of its Animal Care and Use Program.”
Reitz also emphasized the importance of animal testing to the university’s progress in the fields of science, education, agriculture and medicine.
“UConn regards the use of animals in research, teaching, and testing to be an integral component of continued progress in science, education, and agriculture, and essential to the pursuit of medical and scientific discovery that advances human and animal health,” said Reitz.
PETA recently announced its Research Modernization Deal, a report which offers a “strategy for identifying and eliminating funding for methods that don’t work and refocusing resources on more promising areas,” according to Gala.
“PETA is urging UConn to shift its research program to human-relevant, animal-free experiments that are more likely to translate into results that can benefit patients,” Gala said. “…Studies show that 90% of basic research, most of which involves animals, fails to lead to treatments for humans—yet the National Institutes of Health spends nearly half its annual budget on animal studies resulting in the waste of nearly $18 billion taxpayer dollars each year.”