Using an unusual crowdsourcing technique to generate hundreds of public records requests, an animal advocacy group claims it has uncovered evidence that an Ohio State University (OSU) lab has violated National Institutes of Health (NIH) rules concerning the use of dogs in biomedical research. The university has denied the charges—and provided ScienceInsider with evidence to the contrary—but the group’s effort is just its first salvo in a unique campaign designed to end all research on dogs and cats.
The new strategy could cause a headache for animal researchers across the country, says Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington, D.C., who authored a report earlier this year on activists using open records laws to target academics in hot-button fields such as climate change and genetically modified foods.
The animal advocacy group, the Los Angeles–based Beagle Freedom Project (BFP), was founded in 2010 to encourage laboratories to adopt out their beagles, the most popular dog breed used in biomedical research. But the organization eventually expanded its scope to all dogs and cats, launching its “Identity Campaign” in March of this year. As part of the campaign, members of the public visit BFP’s website and peruse a list of more than 1200 cats and dogs (compiled from BFP’s own records requests) kept at 17 public research universities across the United States. The supporters “adopt” one of these animals, and BFP sends them a Freedom of Information Act request form, which asks for various pieces of information on the animal in question, including health records, protocols, and necropsy reports. The volunteer then fills out the form and sends it to the university. Any information gathered is forwarded to BFP, which creates a biography page for the cat or dog on its website as a way to engage the public—and pressure the university to release the animal and/or end its research.
“It puts a face on animal experimentation,” says Jeremy Beckham, coordinator of the Identity Campaign. “As far as we are aware, this is the first time in the history of animal advocacy that an organization has crowdsourced Freedom of Information Act requests.”
Though the campaign is only a few months old, Beckham says that more than 1000 people have “adopted” lab animals, and that he has received about 100 university responses to the records requests from the campaign’s supporters. In a complaint filed Monday with both OSU and NIH, BFP alleges that some of the documents provided by OSU indicate that one of its NIH-funded labs violated NIH guidelines by procuring and using “random source” dogs in studies of heart failure. Such dogs are supplied by so-called class B dealers, which obtain them from pounds, breeders, and other “random sources.” The class B system has long been plagued with charges that some of it dealers sell stolen and abused pets, and in 2013 NIH announced that researchers using its funds could not procure random source dogs after 1 October 2014, and could not use NIH money obtained in 2015 and beyond to work on them.
According to BFP, OSU broke both of these rules. The complaint contains an acquisition record (p. 18), which suggests that the university procured four class B dogs on 6 October 2014—5 days after the NIH moratorium went into effect. BFP also provided other records—including a disposition form (p. 109)—that indicate that one of the random source dogs was still alive as late as July of this year. “The record indicates the dog is still being used in the lab,” Beckham says. “That’s a violation.”
OSU disputes both assertions. The dogs, a spokesperson says, were purchased on 11 September 2014, and were merely delivered to the university on 6 October. (The university provided this purchase order to ScienceInsider as evidence.) It also says that no NIH grants made after 1 October 2014 have been used to study these dogs, and that no dogs currently involved in the lab's research come from class B dealers. “Ohio State University has always been in compliance with National Institutes of Health policy regarding the procurement of dogs used in research,” wrote university spokesman Jeff Grabmeier in an email to ScienceInsider. (The researcher who runs the laboratory named in the complaint is on vacation and unavailable to discuss her lab’s research, OSU says; NIH declined to comment on whether an investigation is taking place.)
Beckham says he is not swayed by OSU’s responses, and that his group is asking NIH to terminate the project’s funding, estimated by OSU at nearly $400,000. Regardless of that outcome, he says that the Identity Campaign has already been a success. “Most of our supporters didn’t even know they could file a records request,” he says. “Now, some have started doing it on their own. We’ve created a very enthusiastic group of supporters.”
UCS’s Halpern says he’s not aware of a group crowdsourcing records requests like BFP has. He thinks the effort could intimidate those who perform research on cats and dogs. “Any kind of scrutiny has the potential to chill speech if scientists are underprepared to deal with that scrutiny,” he says.
In the meantime, BFP is working on another complaint that targets a different university. About 21,000 cats and 59,000 dogs are currently used in U.S. research, and Beckham says he hopes his group can put a dent in those numbers. “As the word gets out, the public will become increasingly opposed to the use of cats and dogs in biomedical research,” he says. “We’re going to make as much noise as we can.”