Threat of Animal Rights Violence Influenced Decision to Cancel Anthrax Project

Last week a commotion erupted over a canceled anthrax project at Oklahoma State University (OSU), Stillwater. The National Institutes of Health had agreed to fund the study, which involved creating an animal model of anthrax infection in baboons, and the university's animal use and care committee had given it the green light. But OSU President Burns Hargis decided that the project would not be allowed on campus, for reasons that weren't immediately clear.

Hargis made the decision based on several factors, OSU's vice president for research and technology transfer, Stephen McKeever, told ScienceInsider on Friday. "The issue he was mostly concerned about was that he really did not want to attract controversy from the violent elements of various animal rights groups. He did not want to put OSU in that spotlight and so unnecessarily distract from or interfere with current research." Although McKeever says no specific attacks or threats against OSU factored in the decision, attacks by animal rights extremists have been on the rise in the United States in recent years.

Researchers at OSU and elsewhere had been quick to speculate that Hargis's decision had been influenced by Madeline Pickens, a wealthy donor and animal rights activist. Her husband, T. Boone Pickens, has donated $458 million to the university in recent years. Last week Madeleine Pickens's Web site posted an article from DVM Newsmagazine about the anthrax decision, appending the original headline with the exclamation "Kudos for a Great Decision!" and highlighting comments from a professor in OSU's Center for Veterinary Health Sciences suggesting that Pickens had played a role in the decision.

McKeever flatly denies that the Pickenses had a role in the decision to block the anthrax project. "We never had any discussions with them about this issue," he says. "How else can I tell you that it didn't happen other than telling you that it didn't happen?"