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Winners and Losers in the Animal Research Wars

Michael Conn, James Parker

A Growing Problem

These stories aren't just from southern California. Ed Walsh and his wife, JoAnn McGee (also a scientist), became targets in Nebraska. Walsh was head of the developmental auditory physiology lab at the Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha. A newly hired security guard at the hospital turned out to be a member of an animal extremist group. This person video-recorded aspects of Walsh's research, which involved cochlear surgery in cats. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a suggestively edited version of the footage and claimed Walsh had violated the Animal Welfare Act. PETA's claims were later debunked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The facts of the case did not deflect the blistering online attacks, personal confrontations and a merciless threat to kill Walsh's five-year-old son. In an interview in Maclean's magazine, Walsh recalled, "The impact on our family is virtually impossible to assess . . . I can tell you that it was huge, devastating. It's a life-altering experience to have your life, and the lives of your children, so exposed. Routine daily habits—like turning an ignition switch or walking across a parking lot—can become anxiety-ridden." He went on to say, "They didn't pick on us, per se. Anyone using animals for anything is a target. PETA recognized the public relations value in targeting high-profile institutions a long time ago."

We understand. Several years after Walsh's experience, we learned that the same individual was working at our facility, this time as an animal-care technician. As before, he published edited video of animals used in our research program in an attempt to shut us down. But just as in Ed Walsh's case, an extensive USDA investigation found no substance to the accusations. Our vindication hasn't stopped these unsupported claims and falsified images from persisting on the Internet and in animal-extremist brochures to this day.

The threats and violence are even more prevalent in some countries. In England, some scientists have given up their cars rather than having them searched for bombs every day. Extremists in Oxford and Cambridge used these intimidation tactics in an effort to stop construction of an animal facility. Their larger goal was (and is) to shutter all animal research in the UK. These agitators weren't novices or students—they were repeat offenders. The spokesman for one of the groups had already served jail time for possessing incendiary devices with the intent of bombing a contract-research organization. They were effective, too, for a time, temporarily stopping construction at one facility by threatening construction workers. These workmen—not a puny or easily frightened group—were so intimidated that they took to wearing balaclavas to conceal their identify from protestors trying to learn their home addresses. <!--pagebreak-->

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