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Wisconsin Lab Researchers Could Face Animal Cruelty Charges in Sheep Deaths

Posted by Humane Future On Thursday, June 3, 2010 at 1:45 PM
On Wednesday, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Amy Smith appointed a special prosecutor to determine whether nine University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers and lab officials should be charged with animal cruelty. Madison lawyer David Geier is the special prosecutor who will decide whether to file criminal charges, issue an injunction to stop the experiments or impose lesser penalties such as fines or citations.

UW researchers and officials were responsible for killing sheep at the university's Diving Physiology laboratory while studying decompression sickness (the bends"). During the experiments, sheep are exposed to compressed air in a high-pressure chamber to simulate physiological conditions during deep sea dives. The legal problem: Wisconsin law prohibits anyone from killing an animal through decompression.

In her 24-page decision, the judge found “probable cause exists that those who decompressed the sheep acted either intentionally or negligently.” She goes on to say, “Evidence strongly suggest the authors knew some sheep would die from decompression, or that there was a substantial and unreasonable risk of such a death.”

Judge Smith also recognized that “To do nothing in response to this petition would unduly depreciate the significance of the alleged misconduct. The allegations are made more serious by the claim that these transgressions have gone on for years, and apparently have become accepted practice in university animal research. To do nothing would, in essence, tacitly allow the university to continue the alleged unlawful practices without sanction.”

Numerous sheep have died over the years, but only four deaths from 2007 and 2008 fall within the three-year statute of limitations.

While conviction on the misdemeanor charge would only result in a few months of jail time, if UW researchers are prosecuted it would only be the second time in U.S. history that animal researchers have been prosecuted for cruelty to animals in a laboratory. The first time was the landmark Silver Spring Monkeys case that resulted from an undercover investigation by Alex Pacheco for PETA.

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