PETA sues UMass over animal research records

The school failed to comply with public records requests, PETA says

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PETA sues UMass over animal research records

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

By Will Katcher, Collegian Staff

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Back in November of 2017, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a national animal rights advocacy group, filed a public records request asking the University of Massachusetts to provide video recordings of their experiments conducted on primates on the Amherst campus.

Roughly three weeks ago, the nearly year-and-a-half-long tug of war between the two parties took its most recent turn, with PETA filing a lawsuit in the Suffolk County Superior Court alleging that UMass had failed to comply with the request.

Jeremy Beckham, a research associate in PETA’s Laboratory Investigations Department, said that the efforts to unmask UMass’ primate research date back several years to the closure of Harvard University’s New England National Primate Research Center.

Melinda Novak, now a professor in the College of Natural Sciences, was a researcher at the Harvard facility. When it shut down due to “strategic” reasons as the college stated, she established the primate research laboratory at UMass and brought her work and several rhesus monkeys to the Amherst campus.

Beckham, who is heavily involved in PETA’s lawsuit against the school, said Novak had already been on PETA’s radar due to her work at Harvard, which had allegedly involved exploring self-mutilation patterns in laboratory animals and stress.

However, in one study of self-injurious behavior, Novak and her colleagues noted that understanding what leads to stress in research animals “may lead to an effective redesign of the environment and modification of husbandry practices so as to prevent or reduce future occurrences of wounding.”

With Novak working at UMass, a public university subject to public records laws, PETA assumed it could access video or photos of laboratory work.

Following the November 2017 records request filing, UMass confirmed that photos and videos existed and provided a log of the files, but did not submit the specific files requested by PETA Beckham said.

The school claimed that making the videos public could threaten the personal privacy and safety of the researchers, as well as jeopardize “trade secrets,” according to Beckham.

UMass has previously cited the safety of lab researchers, as well as the monkeys themselves, as a reason for maintaining the secrecy of the lab’s location.

In 2012, when the Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that the location of a lab was in the vicinity of Tobin Hall, UMass spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski decided not to reveal the specific location out of fear of violence by animal rights organizations, according to a Daily Collegian article.

In a phone call this week, Blaguszewski reiterated the University’s stance, “We don’t identify the location of any facilities,” he said.

However, Blaguszewski said by email that there are currently five research facilities on campus, with an additional one under construction with one currently undergoing renovation.

In Massachusetts parties must first file an appeal to the state Public Records Division before filing a lawsuit. In May of 2018, after UMass did not submit specific videos or photos, PETA appealed to the state.

State records supervisor Rebecca Murray sided with PETA, and said that UMass had improperly used the exemptions relating to privacy, safety and trade secrets to deny access to records.

PETA’s lawsuit, filed Monday, March 25, alleges that UMass still has not complied with Murray’s decision. “Instead, the university emailed PETA in August, explaining why it was declining to provide the records,” the Gazette previously reported.

With regard to the safety of the researchers, Beckham said that PETA is not concerned with who carried out the experiments. He said that the school is welcome to blur out any person’s face in submitted visuals, as other research facilities have done in similar lawsuits.

“We’re not interested in the faces of these people,” Beckham said, adding that their names are already public, “Experimenters themselves already publish papers with their names on them.”

In a response to PETA following the appeal decision, UMass cited testimony before Congress by FBI Deputy Assistant Director John Lewis on the dangers posed to researchers by animal rights extremists, the Gazette reported.

When asked about threats made against any UMass facilities, Blaguszewski stated that the University doesn’t comment on security matters related to the research labs.

By email, Novak added to Blaguszewski’s point, saying that universities typically try to protect researchers from threats of harm.

While the Collegian was unable to speak with Novak, she did provide several news articles describing violence against researchers at UCLA, including the bombing of one researcher’s car.

A PETA victory in the lawsuit would compel UMass to release the records under penalty of contempt of court, while a UMass victory would involve a judge saying that the appeal was wrongly decided, and that UMass has reason to withhold the records, Beckham said.

Investigations into animal research laboratories are hardly new for PETA, he noted. He has been involved in roughly two dozen records requests lawsuits during his career.

“It’s pretty hard to pierce through the secrecy of these facilities,” he said. “It’s not like they allow tours to the public or the media or anything.”

This leaves PETA with a few options. One route is to file records requests. Another is to conduct an eyewitness investigation, Beckham said, which involves someone establishing laboratory employment and using hidden cameras to expose research tactics.

One such undercover investigation occurred at the Professional Laboratory Research Services facility in North Carolina, and resulted in multiple employees being indicted for cruelty to animals.

In cases where PETA pursues records requests, the organization looks for instances where researchers filmed or photographed their experiments and attempts to access those files through public records laws.

If they obtain the records, PETA can use them to turn public opinion, Beckham said.

“The videos and the photographs are frankly one of the most powerful persuasive tools we have to just show people the reality of what’s happening.”

This can often be PETA’s only legal recourse, since many states’ animal cruelty laws exempt researchers from being charged. Instead, the organization seeks to use public outcry to remedy what they see as animal abuse.

In 2009, PETA began a campaign to release records from a lab at the University of Wisconsin that conducted experiments on cats that involved drilling into the animal skulls. PETA sued and acquired photos from the lab, which lead to a public opinion campaign that involved comedian Bill Maher and actor James Cromwell.

During a protest, Beckham and Cromwell were both arrested. The experiments were eventually stopped, and several cats were adopted, Beckham said.

PETA is currently engaged in two other lawsuits against research facilities, one with the University of California Davis and another with Oregon Health and Science University.

PETA’s lawsuit had not advanced past initial filing as of April 10.

Will Katcher can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @will_katcher.