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Animal rights panal splits in its report

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By Linda D'Angelo

After over a year of research, the Mayoral Blue Ribbon Committee on Laboratory Animals (BRC) presented its report to the Cambridge City Council last week. Consisting of three members, including the chair of MIT's animal care committee, John M. Moses, the committee "disagreed too deeply to develop a unified plan of action," according to The Harvard Crimson.

But the council ordered the BRC to reconvene and produce concrete recommendations for the council to consider when it drafts an ordinance on animal research.

BRC was formed in 1987 after animal rights activists, who feared a negative media campaign by the city's major research facilities, aborted a move to put a referendum question on the city ballot. MIT officials were among those who promised to fight the proposal.

The committee gathered its information through pre-announced visits to each of the thirteen Cambridge institutions that use animals for research. However, it did not observe research procedures being performed on animals.

The committee was unable to arrive at a general consensus in its report. Rather than summarize the findings of the committee into recommendations, each member wrote his own view of what future steps the council should take.

In his report, Moses wrote that "mandated and voluntary compliance with federal guidelines ensure competent and ethical treatment of animals" in the laboratories. He went on to assert that "cruelty and abuse are not existent in Cambridge."

Committee member Steven Wise, president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, cited worrisome examples such as the chairperson of an animal care committee who, informed by BRC that the animals were sick, did not have the authority to put them to sleep. He also labeled these institute animal care committees as "not neutral" since the percentage of members who participate in animal research often exceeds his recommendation of 25 percent.

Veterinarian Stuart Wiles, appointed to the panel as an agreed-upon neutral arbiter, struck a balance between the two other members. While he reported barren cages, ventilation problems, overcrowding and animal illness in several labs, Wiles felt that these instances of animal mistreatment were not "representative of the use of animals" in Cambridge. Like Wise, he found the animal care committees' lack of decision-making authority alarming, describing its inability to "halt a research protocol or perform euthanasia" as "not a satisfactory situation."

The report did include a statement, signed by all members, which described general laboratory conditions in Cambridge as "clean, neat and well-organized and that anesthesia was administered properly." Common suggestions included unannounced inspections, appointment of animal rights advocates to animal care committees, better care of primates, freedom of information and stronger enforcement of regulations.

MIT labs studied

The report also made specific reference to conditions and procedures of particular concern in MIT labs, especially with regard to primates. One MIT study involved surgical insertions of steel tubes into the eyes of young macaque monkeys who were also inflicted with lesions from acid and implantations of coils. The monkeys were then deprived of water and made to work for apple juice rewards. After three or four years and up to four operations, the monkeys are finally killed.

Another MIT study cited in the report involved surgery and injection of chemicals into the brains of squirrel monkeys. The animals were housed separately in barren cages, despite the fact that they were accustomed to living in large groups. As a result of this treatment, the monkeys survived for only two to 22 days after surgery.

Cambridge Mayor Alfred Vellucci, in a Feb. 16 letter, requested that MIT "provide information about the care and use of primates at MIT, including practices related to monitoring their physical welfare and psychological well-being." This letter came as a response to the deaths of four squirrel monkeys at MIT last summer. The monkeys died of heat exhaustion after an equipment malfunction.

The city council expressed disappointment that BRC was unable to reach a unanimous conclusion. Councillor Francis H. Duehay told BCR, "we were hoping you would come in with a definitive report that we could use to draft an ordinance, which we will definitely draw up," according to The Crimson.

After an hour of debate, the city council decided that BRC should reconvene in order to debate their individual findings. This had not been the practice over the past year since Moses had refused to discuss any of the information gathered by the committee, according to a Cambridge Committee for Responsible Research news brief. BRC is expected to return to the city council within thirty days with concrete recommendations.