Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard said he wouldn't prosecute UW-Madison for violating state law in sheep experiments, so two animal rights groups are attempting to file the criminal charges themselves.
The groups - Madison-based Alliance for Animals and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - are allowed to do so under a little-used state statute.
They filed a petition Tuesday asking a judge to allow them to prosecute five UW-Madison officials and several researchers.
Blanchard wrote in an October opinion that he believed UW-Madison researchers violated a state law when 26 sheep died as a result of experiments on decompression sickness, but he said it wouldn't be a "wise use of resources" for his office to prosecute the alleged crimes.
Under Wisconsin law, someone other than a prosecutor can file a criminal complaint under two conditions: if a judge decides there is probable cause to believe that someone has committed a crime and the district attorney refuses to issue a complaint.
In this case, the affidavit states, three sheep out of 303 died during studies in a hyperbaric chamber over the past 10 years and 23 others died within a day of having been removed from the chamber.
It is illegal in Wisconsin to kill an animal by means of decompression. The crime is a forfeiture violation, a maximum fine of $500 per violation, but rises to a misdemeanor if intent or negligence is shown.
Only violations that occurred within the last three years, however, can be prosecuted.
The university stopped conducting the experiments last fall when it learned that it may have been violating state law, said Eric Sandgren, who oversees animal research at UW-Madison. The research is an effort to prevent "the bends," or injuries to divers as they ascend from deep water.
The animal rights groups are seeking charges against Martin T. Cadwallader, dean of the graduate school; William S. Mellon, associate dean for research policy; Sandgren, director of the Research Animal Resources Center; Richard R. Lane, associate director of the Research Animal Resources Center; and Janet Welter, interim chief campus veterinarian.
Several other people, including researchers who have published works on decompression and others who maintained the hyperbaric chamber and the animals, are also named in the affidavit as potential defendants.
Blanchard said Tuesday it is "extremely rare" for a person or group to attempt to file criminal charges themselves.