An animal rights group says that it has successfully lobbied the Navy to end a pair of studies that involved subjecting sheep to conditions that simulated surfacing quickly from a great depth, causing them pain and sometimes leaving the animals paralyzed or dead.
Representatives from the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, say that their campaign of letter writing, protests and legal action has put an end to a series of experiments at the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus that were billed as studying ways of rescuing sailors trapped in sunken submarines.
"These tests are scientifically worthless and fall far short of international standards," Shalin Gala, a vice president with the group, told Military.com earlier in January, before adding that both France and the U.K. scrapped their respective naval animal testing programs long before the U.S. Navy.
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Gala called the experiments, which involve putting sheep in chambers that simulate both the pressure one would experience at depth as well as surfacing, "gruesome" and "useless."
The experiments largely revolved around inflicting decompression sickness on the animals by pressurizing the chamber and then rapidly depressurizing it in order to cause nitrogen bubbles to form in the sheep's blood.
The condition is commonly known as "the bends," and it is something both professional and recreational divers take steps to avoid since it is often painful, if not deadly.
Gala said that the experiments left the sheep with conditions such as cardiovascular collapse, spinal cord injury and paralysis. However, he also cited one instance in which a malfunctioning pump on the chamber led researchers to euthanize the animals mid-experiment after they began to show "signs of discomfort." Sheep who survived the experiments were still euthanized and dissected, according to Gala.
When reached by Military.com, both the University of Wisconsin and the Navy confirmed that the experiments had ended. The Navy said the stop was because "the contract for the project came to its natural conclusion at the end of the performance period," while the university said it was because both "the scientists and the Navy ... decided in 2022 not to continue these contracted experiments at UW-Madison."
The University of Wisconsin also said that it is "committed to careful and ethical animal studies like these with immediate potential for life-saving results" and noted that it "would certainly revisit what has been a long and important partnership" with the Navy.
According to Shalin, the reason behind the university's desire to continue these tests is clear: money. The pair of recently halted experiments came with nearly $390,000 of Navy funds.
The school has conducted experiments on animals in the past -- sometimes with great controversy. In 2014, the university drew attention for a planned experiment on monkeys that aimed to separate primate infants from their mothers and then euthanize them to study anxiety and depression. The experiment drew condemnation from both outside and inside the university.
Meanwhile, PETA has a yearslong history of trying to expose what it sees as abusive animal experiments at the university. One of its campaigns in 2020 led the school to allege that the group had misrepresented its research, used "episodes plucked out of context," and was "focused on stopping all animal research, despite the indispensable role animal research has had in eliminating diseases and alleviating the suffering of both people and animals."
In the decompression experiments, PETA took legal action, suing the school in 2010, and more recently launched a public pressure campaign to end the tests.
In a 2022 letter, co-signed by a retired Navy rear admiral who commanded several naval medical institutions, the group urged Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro to halt the experiments and conduct studies on tissues and cells or use data gathered from divers. The group also led protests, with signs and people dressed in sheep costumes, at several events the secretary attended.
The Navy's track record regarding concern for animal welfare has been somewhat mixed and more sensitive to public outcry and legal action.
For example, the service has been sued several times over the past two decades by environmental groups over its use of sonar in submarine exercises. And the service's record of "incidental taking" -- the regulatory term for anything from disrupted behavior to injury or death of a marine mammal -- prompted the governor of Washington to call its behavior "unacceptable" in a letter to a regulator.
The service has been publicly working to offset some of its impact on wildlife including during large exercises like ship shock trials -- a process of setting off large explosives near newly built ships to test them, but is known to harm and kill marine life -- highlighting the steps it takes to protect the welfare of animals.
Gala says that PETA will "continue to urge the Navy and the U.S. Department of Defense to get in line with international standards by not supporting deadly and pointless decompression and oxygen toxicity experiments on any animals at any institutions -- and by backing superior, human-relevant, non-animal research methods instead."
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
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