The animal rights group PETA filed a complaint with two federal agencies Wednesday alleging UW-Madison researchers violated multiple provisions of the federal Animal Welfare Act in their treatment of cats used in a 2008 eye movement study.
The university denied the allegations.
"There's no justification for any of the claims," said Eric Sandgren, animal research oversight director at UW-Madison.
The feline, called Double Trouble, allegedly was given multiple surgeries in 2008 to her head and brain and later killed. The surgeries included being implanted with a steel post in her head, steel coils in her eyes, electrodes in her brain and cochlear implants in her ears.
PETA alleges that researchers violated eight provisions of the Animal Welfare Act in their treatment of Double Trouble, one of hundreds of cats used in the experiment that started in 1996 and continues today. Sandgren denied all the purported violations.
The complaint asks for an investigation into the findings by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and fines if the department substantiates the claims. It asks the National Institutes of Health to return funding it's provided for the project.
Sandgren said an investigation will validate the department's handling of the research cat, calling PETA's complaint "a stunt."
Determining whether research practices using animals crosses an ethical line or not can be tricky, said James DuBois, a medical ethicist at St. Louis University who runs a program for scientific researchers accused of unprofessional behavior.
Examples like those cited in the case of Double Trouble may deviate from established research protocols, he said, "but was it due to negligence or ignorance or just an honest error, an accident?"
He said that, while he couldn't comment on the specifics of the study, the fact that it's been running since 1996 shows it's been through regular reviews.
"It would suggest generally that there's at least a decent level of compliance," he said.
In January 2009, PETA requested laboratory records from the university about its treatment of cats and monkeys in eye movement experiments. Later that year, the university released about 1,300 pages of records but withheld photos and videos from the lab. After extensive legal maneuvering by both parties, the university provided 37 photographs to PETA in June. PETA decided to file the complaint after reviewing the photographs, said Justin Goodman, associate director of investigations.
"The evidence of her neglect and mistreatment is so compelling I don't think it can be ignored," Goodman said.