When it comes to debating the merits of animal research taking place on the UW-Madison campus, there may well be middle ground on which the masses can agree.

But like so many political issues these days, it's the folks who are most heavily invested in a topic that tend to dominate the discussion.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals garnered headlines last month by accusing UW-Madison researchers of violating the federal Animal Welfare Act in a study that uses cats to examine the link between hearing and eye movements. Among the allegations leveled: Proper procedures weren't taken to prevent distress and pain for the animals; the university didn't consider alternatives to procedures that may cause pain; and no appropriate rationale was given for using animals.

According to the university protocol describing the research, auditory studies at UW-Madison date back three decades, with an average of 30 cats per year being used. PETA highlighted the plight of an orange tabby named Double Trouble, who underwent surgeries in 2008. The animal rights group said a steel post was implanted in the cat's head, steel coils put in its eyes and cochlear implants in its ears. The cat was later euthanized after getting an infection following one of the surgeries. And if this information alone doesn't play on your emotions, PETA also released photos of the cat that are sure to elicit a reflexive response.

The reaction from UW-Madison was swift and stern. Within hours of PETA going public with its concerns on Sept. 12, Eric Sandgren — who oversees animal research on campus as director of the university's Research Animal Resources Center — adamantly told the Cap Times that no regulations were violated and that he welcomed the federal investigation PETA's complaint triggered. A few days later, the university released a document that offers a point-by-point rebuttal of PETA's charges, and on Sept. 20 UW-Madison neuroscientists Donata Oertel and Peter Lipton, both of whom use animals in their research, co-wrote a strongly worded guest column for the Wisconsin State Journal that praises the research in question and rips animal rights "militants."

If one looks at this issue only through such divergent lenses, it appears these experiments conducted on cats at UW-Madison were either the latest sign that animal research on campus is little more than a house of horrors, or instead is research that is going to prove greatly beneficial to humankind and shouldn't be questioned by outsiders who really don't understand what's going on.

Such disparate views of a hot-button topic are the norm, Dr. Lawrence Hansen says, whether we are talking about politics, using animals in research or any other issue.

"When like-minded people come together, the research has shown that they actually make each others' views more extreme," says Hansen, a professor of neuroscience and pathology at the University of California-San Diego.

When Hansen talks about the many prickly issues associated with using animals in research, he says he tends to anger those on both edges of the debate. Hansen, who studies Alzheimer's disease, is a member of PETA. And while most of his research is conducted on humans, his name also is attached to some studies that utilized genetically modified mice.

"This topic is extremely polarizing, almost like the abortion issue," says Hansen. "There is a pervasiveness of groupthink taking place on both sides of this debate. The question to me is, where do you draw the line that scientists can't cross, and who gets to draw that line?"

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Allyson Bennett wants to put this question to the critics of using animals in research: "What are the consequences if we don't do this work?"

Bennett is a UW-Madison assistant professor of psychology who does non-invasive research using rhesus macaques to examine how early life social experiences — some of the middle-aged monkeys she studies were taken from their mothers at birth — can impact things like behavior and brain development.

"Don't we have a moral obligation to use our skills to move science forward?" asks Bennett.

Many on the UW-Madison campus involved with animal research point out that animal studies have a long and successful tradition of leading to valuable information when it comes to basic biology, modeling diseases and exploring biological processes. And while many animal models ultimately prove not to be of great value when transitioning that understanding to humans, most scientists nonetheless believe that decades of research and making incremental steps in understanding various factors have improved health care for humans and other animals alike.

Indeed, such beliefs are widely shared by biomedical scientists across the nation. A 2011 online poll in Nature magazine indicated nine out of 10 such researchers believe using animals is "essential" in studies. Of those who responded to the poll, 70.3 percent said they use animals in experiments.

"If you want to learn about brain circuitry, for example, and how you get from the eyeball to the brain cortex to thinking and remembering what you've seen, there is no way you can do that without a live animal," says UW researcher Peter Lipton, who uses rats to study strokes. "Maybe the ultimate decision is, do we need to find certain things out or not?"

The Nature poll did highlight some mixed feelings about the topic, with a third of those who work on animals reporting they have "ethical concerns" about the role of animals in research, and 16 percent saying they have "misgivings" about some of their work.

UW researcher Donata Oertel admits there have been times when she has questioned things that have been done to animals, recalling that as an undergrad more than four decades ago she "detested" being asked to cut the fins off of a live fish to see what happened to the animal's swimming ability.

"I thought it was just awful," she says. "But, in part because of animal rights activists in the past, these types of things absolutely do not happen anymore."

Oertel today uses mice as an animal model to study how neurons work in the part of the brain that receives input from the ear. She says it's "actually extremely easy" to justify using animals in research.

"The biggest assurance we have as a society that experiments aren't being done for no reason is the review process," she says.

First, federally mandated and self-regulating Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees on each campus must review how experiments are done. These bodies, in part, are charged with making sure each proposal follows proper guidelines, is scientifically justified, and that the appropriate number of animals are being used. Since UW-Madison is so large, it has independent committees for each unit that conducts animal research; this includes the School of Veterinary Medicine, Graduate School, Medical School, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and College of Letters and Science.

And to determine whether a protocol is funded, research proposals must survive a competitive peer review system via an agency such as the National Institutes of Health. In 2010, fewer than one in five (18 percent) protocols submitted to the NIH for consideration were funded, according to government figures.

"So the fact that projects are reviewed by two distinct bodies makes it easy for me to be comfortable in promoting all biomedical research that's done," says Oertel.

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Hansen says there are no easy answers when it comes to determining what types of animal research should be allowed to move forward and what studies it might make sense to stop.

But he believes one thing is clear: The researchers themselves currently have too much say in this equation. Hansen recently wrote a paper that examines what he believes is a pervasiveness of bias and groupthink in how Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees evaluate research proposals.

An analysis he published earlier this year indicates that in the nation's largest research institutions, 82 percent of those serving on use committees are either researchers themselves (67 percent) or institutional veterinarians (15 percent), and Hansen argues both groups have clear interests in continuing animal research. According to the analysis, scientists made up 64.9 percent of use committee membership at UW-Madison in 2010, while 14.9 percent were vets. Just more than 20 percent were non-scientists or not affiliated with the university.

"I don't think you have to be a cynic to say, 'Well, duh, this doesn't seem right,'" he says.

Similarly, when it comes to receiving federal funding, Hansen argues the situation is much the same, with proposals being reviewed by those who conduct similar research.

"So it's all an ethical monoculture," he says.

Richard "Jim" Brown, who worked as a laboratory animal veterinarian at UW-Madison from 2005-10, says he has witnessed this first-hand. Brown, who admits he doesn't always keep his mouth shut when it might be in his personal best interests, quit his university post in 2010 after raising questions about some research and animal welfare issues. He says he left UW-Madison after being subjected to an intolerable work environment.

"I can tell you there is a lot of very good research being done by some really good people (at UW-Madison)," he says. "But they're not all good researchers."

Brown adds people have to realize that, sometimes, mistakes are going to happen at a place with such a huge animal research enterprise and that animals are going to be harmed.

"Every once in awhile, GM puts out a clunker," he notes. "Human error is part of life. But some of this isn't human error, it's the same mistakes being made over and over and over again. Or there are times when basically the same research is done for five or 10 or 20 years, and many hundreds of animals have suffered and there is nothing to show for it. So I started asking, 'Is this scientifically justified?' Well, how did that work out for me?"

To be clear, big bucks are also at stake. According to Sandgren, UW-Madison's animal research enterprise currently involves about 1,100 animal care and use protocols, with about 20 percent — or $200 million — of the university's roughly $1 billion in research awards being associated with animal studies. Figures provided by the university indicate UW-Madison researchers used 231,422 lab mice, 33,802 lab rats, 2,675 non-human primates, 1,115 pigs (for non-agricultural, biomedical research), 265 dogs and 79 cats, among other animals, in 2011 research projects.

To better address concerns about animal welfare, Hansen would like to see lawmakers push for a more equal balance between scientists and civilians on Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees. As an example of how this might impact research decisions, Hansen notes that there is a researcher at UC-San Diego who uses rats to conduct spinal cord research to examine the potential of stem cells to regenerate a severed cord.

"It's pretty horrible if you're the rat, but maybe some day it will help paraplegics," he says. "So I would guess that the vast majority of regular citizens off the street, if they looked at this protocol, would probably say it's OK, the ends justify the means. The next step is to do this with monkeys, and I'm guessing you'd see a drop-off but I still think most people would say go ahead."

But if you had that same committee and asked them about the eye movement and hearing study using cats on the UW-Madison campus, "I think most of them would say, 'No, this can't be justified,' " says Hansen. "The cost in animal suffering is too high and the potential medical benefits to humans too low. There is no direct application."

Hansen notes that a comprehensive analysis of use committee reviews from a decade ago indicated a 98 percent approval rate for in-house research protocols — even though when those same research proposals were evaluated by use committees from other institutions, 61 percent were judged to be problematic in some way.

"The fact is, IACUCs as they are set up today will approve virtually anything," says Hansen.

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Efforts locally in recent years to move toward a more nuanced discussion on this topic have shown some promise before ultimately fizzling.

Rick Marolt, a local business consultant and part-time business lecturer, had spent three years trying to get someone — anyone — associated with UW-Madison to answer the question: "Is experimenting on monkeys ethical?" Former UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin directed Marolt to take his inquiry to the All-Campus Animal Care and Use Committee in August 2009.

Marolt stated his case, asking for an independent group to be formed with recognized experts in ethics, law, animal welfare and primatology. He proposed that this body listen to testimony from a range of groups, conduct a cost-benefit analysis of experiments on monkeys, and undertake an anonymous survey to gauge the thoughts of UW-Madison faculty and staff on this topic. Finally, he proposed that this panel produce a report to present to the UW System's Board of Regents.

Months later — and only after further prodding from Martin — the committee further discussed the topic in January 2010 before endorsing a position saying that "existing standards of veterinary care and applicable animal welfare laws … provide a suitable and appropriate basis for determining when the use of non-human primates … is ethical."

Similarly, during the summer of 2010 a group of animal rights activists and concerned citizens tried to convince the Dane County Board to form a citizens advisory panel to examine whether experimenting on monkeys at UW-Madison is humane and ethical. Although the resolution was initially backed by the Health and Human Needs Committee in June of that year, it later stalled in the Executive Committee and never garnered the votes to be brought up before the full board.

Although that proposal ultimately failed, in an effort to reach across the proverbial aisle to those on the other side of the debate UW-Madison administrators — who pushed extremely hard to get the issue dropped at the County Board level — said that the university would start hosting a series of forums designed to create a more open dialogue on a range of topics related to animal research. These forums recently started their third year, although scientists and animal rights activists alike have said they don't think these discussions have done much to engage the broader community on this issue.

"People who have a financial interest in something and people who are critics of that system will probably never come to agreement — and I don't think it makes any difference whether it's animal research or drilling for oil or whatever," says Rick Bogle, an outspoken critic of the university's animal research projects who is also the co-director of the Madison-based Alliance for Animals. "So in instances like these, I do think it would be valuable to have a citizens advisory group look at such issues. You can put people on those panels that don't have clear biases one way or the other, and then you let them hear from these two biased points of view and let them come to some sort of decision about what they believe."

A persistent trickle of eyebrow-raising news coming out of UW-Madison's animal research enterprise over the past few years makes it hard to believe the controversy is going to simply vanish. Some of the recent issues worth noting include:

• In December 2009, animal welfare inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported they had uncovered 20 federal violations — including vomiting dogs, a dirty operating room and university researchers not showing they had considered alternatives to painful experiments on animals. The problems were uncovered during a surprise visit by the agency in November of that year.

• After surviving a legal threat related to sheep deaths during decompression sickness studies in spring 2011, UW-Madison officials helped convince the Legislature to exempt university researchers from state animal cruelty statutes. Over the summer, university researchers took steps to re-start these studies on the bends using sheep.

• In May, a UW-Madison use committee approved a protocol allowing Ned Kalin, who chairs the university's psychiatry department, to use infant monkeys in maternal deprivation experiments in an attempt to better understand human psychiatric disorders. Maternal deprivation studies were made famous in the 1950s by UW-Madison researcher Harry Harlow, but hadn't taken place on campus for at least two decades. These studies are abhorred by most animal rights activists because it's widely recognized that keeping infant monkeys from their mothers severely harms the animals' mental well-being.

• And U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman David Sacks confirms that there's an open investigation of UW-Madison that dates to May 2010 and is based on federal animal welfare inspections between 2007-10. He says this investigation is focusing on "veterinary care and animal husbandry issues." Sacks notes that the results of the investigation will ultimately be made public but he isn't able to comment further on the situation, saying he doesn't want to jeopardize a possible enforcement case.

If significant changes to the current animal welfare system are going to come, it'll likely be due to public outrage. UC-San Diego's Hansen says it was a Life magazine photo essay titled "Concentration Camps for Lost and Stolen Pets," highlighting the abuse of dogs by animal dealers, that led to Congress passing the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act in 1966. Similarly, he says, anger stemming from exposés of animal abuse in research labs led in 1985 to an amendment to that law requiring the establishment of Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees to oversee use of primates, dogs and cats in research and teaching.

Even today, the line on what is or isn't acceptable in animal research continues to shift. Just last month the National Institutes of Health announced it would retire 110 chimpanzees from its biomedical research. The move comes after a December report from the Institute of Medicine indicated there was almost no scientific need to conduct biomedical studies using chimpanzees. Experiments at UW-Madison do not use chimps .

In addition, public opinion polling on this topic indicates a slow erosion of support for animal testing over the past decade, with overall opposition increasing from 33 to 43 percent between 2001-11. Currently, polling indicates 59 percent of teens and 20-somethings oppose such research.

"I do know people who love animals so much that they don't think research should be done on animals, even if that leads to great cures," says Lipton, the UW-Madison neuroscientist. "And I think those people are genuine. But I also think we need to accept people who are doing things we don't like, as long as it's being done within the laws of society. And if you want to change things, use the democratic process."

Lipton, for one, isn't hopeful that a useful debate on this issue will be had anytime soon — at least between those with the strongest of opinions.

"I'm really not sure how you bring people on the far extremes of this issue together for a constructive conversation," he says. "There are some who are just so extreme, that you can't. And that's on both sides of this debate."