ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Mice were hung by their tails with adhesive tape, subjected to electrical shocks and forced to swim until nearly drowning during experiments done at the University of New Mexico.
University officials say there was nothing wrong with the research that helped a high school student study hopelessness and depression for a science fair project. But the former lab veterinarian at the university called the research “torture,” and an animal protection group said it was a perversion of science, the Albuquerque Journal reported in a story published Sunday.
“To me, it suggests inadequacy of faculty guidance,” said Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “This has been against the rules for science fairs for a quarter-century.”
Then-La Cueva High School student Sarah Founds conducted the research in 2003 and 2004 for a science fair project, which was disqualified after national science-fair officials said it violated standards on the ethical use of animals. The research also led to the resignation of the lab’s research veterinarian, who said he didn’t know about the experiments until after the fact.
“I have defended animal research, stating that we do not abuse animals. Then, this slapped me in the face,” said Daniel Theele, who had been in charge of the welfare of lab animals at UNM.
Theele complained about the project and is now suing UNM over the treatment he says he received after being forced to resign in October 2005. An internal investigation at UNM concluded that the experiments violated federal guidelines and had not been properly approved.
A report on the investigation also expressed great concern about exposing a high school student to experiments inflicting pain on animals.
Theele said the experiments were inappropriate even for medical students to conduct.
“I can provide no justification for a high school student being exposed to those kinds of experiments,” he said.
However, UNM continues to defend what happened.
“No illegal, abusive or inappropriate conduct or research occurred,” an attorney for the UNM board of regents wrote in a response to Theele’s lawsuit.
Terry Yates, vice president for research at UNM, and other university officials could not be reached for comment.
Founds, who did the research in conjunction with a graduate student in 2003 and a medical student in 2004, said the project at UNM was worthwhile and did no harm.
“I thought it was awesome. I had a lot of fun working on it,” said Founds, who now is studying nutrition at the University of Idaho.
She said the project “wasn’t overly painful.”
“I’d encourage other students to do that kind of research,” she said.
UNM has between 7,000 and 8,000 animals for use in teaching or research. Most of the animals are mice or rats, but there are other creatures such as hamsters, frogs, fish, rabbits and snakes, said Susan McKinsey, communications director for the university.
Elizabeth Jennings, executive director of Animal Protection of New Mexico, said the experiments on mice raise questions about “what the thousands of other animals on campus are being subjected to, and if anyone is paying attention.”
Ray Powell, a veterinarian serving as the regional director of the Jane Goodall Institute, said greater openness about research “would set our university apart and be a beacon for the rest of the country.”
“I would hope the state’s premier research facility – the University of New Mexico – would see this as an opportunity to set a new standard for openness and humane treatment of animals,” Powell said.