University of Michigan response to PETA complaint: 'We have nothing to be ashamed of'
It’s likely officials from the United States Department of Agriculture will visit the University of Michigan in the wake of a complaint filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals over use of animals in Survival Flight training.
But U-M officials say such inspections are routine, and that they have nothing to hide.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” said Howard Rush, a veterinarian and director of the unit for laboratory animal medicine. “We have a premier program, and the care that the animals receive here is really excellent.”
The animal rights group alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act involving the university’s use of cats and pigs in an emergency training course for its Survival Flight nurses in a Sept. 7 complaint to the USDA.
Survival Flight is a transportation service for patients in need of critical care. It’s available 24 hours a day, by helicopter, plane or specialized ground transportation.
The school should use human simulators instead of animals to practice procedures like intubation, the practice of inserting a tube into the trachea to ventilate the lungs, the group argued.
U-M begged to differ in its statement about the training.
“Despite the availability of simulators and other teaching aids, the unique environment in which Survival Flight nurses work requires these procedures to be performed using live tissue. There is no substitute for this type of training. Anatomic similarity between humans and some animals make them ideally suited as learning models for various essential life saving techniques, especially for young children.”
Rush said a host of internal and external controls govern the use of animals in training and research. U-M has a website to shed light on its animal research. Rush said the university expects a visit from the USDA following the complaint.
PETA launched an awareness campaign to pressure U-M to halt the practice of using cats and pigs; thousands of e-mails have been sent to the emergency room doctor in charge of the Survival Flight course and to an associate medical school dean.
It’s not the first time the school has come under fire for using animals in training.
U-M announced it would stop using dogs to teach emergency life-saving skills to doctors in 2009, about a month after a group called The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a USDA complaint alleging violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
But despite the timing, the complaint had nothing to do with the switch to human simulators. That decision was made independently of outside pressure following a review by school officials that had been ongoing.
The U-M statement issued about the Sept. 7 complaint to the USDA indicates the school intends to cooperate fully with any followup on the part of the government.
Justin Goodman, the associate director of laboratory investigation for PETA, acknowledged the animals were under anesthesia during the Survival Flight training procedures, but that’s beside the point, said Goodman.
Animals are not disposable lab tools, he said. According to the complaint, based on documents obtained from U-M, the school uses 12 cats and 16 pigs each year for the Survival Flight course.
“Their lives have inherent value and we should not exploit them regardless of what our ends are,” Goodman said.
Mark Lowell, the emergency room doctor and professor who teaches the Survival Flight course, did not return a phone call this week from AnnArbor.com.
It’s not uncommon for PETA and other animal rights groups to file Freedom of Information Act requests in order to build a complaint against research institutions like the University of Michigan, said Liz Hodge, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Biomedical Research. The NABR is a nonprofit that exists to educate the public and media on the importance of biomedical research; it supports the “responsible and humane use” of animals in research, Hodge said.
Rush said the practice of answering the FOIAs is not disruptive to research or training, but does disrupt the work environment somewhat since answering the requests is a time-consuming task.