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By Dave Umhoefer June 14, 2011

Wisconsin Humane Society says state budget amendment exempts scientific researchers from state criminal law on animal cruelty

When key state legislators approved a multifaceted amendment to cut the budget and make other high-profile changes to the University of Wisconsin System on June 3, 2011, little attention was paid to item number 27.

Labeled "Liability Protections for Scientific Researchers," the amendment dealt with changes in the state statute regarding "crimes against animals."

About a week later, the Wisconsin Humane Society urged its supporters to protest the move, which university researchers said was necessary to protect vital research from the chilling effect of possible lawsuits or criminal prosecutions urged by animal-rights activists.

In a news release on June 13, 2011, the Humane Society said the state legislation would "exempt scientific researchers from all state animal cruelty laws."

"Wisconsin law already exempts bona fide scientific researchers from the statutes prohibiting animal mistreatment … and poisoning," the group’s  executive director Anne Reed wrote. "The budget bill amendment is broader and would exempt researchers from the entirety of Chapter 951, the criminal laws relating to animal cruelty."

That’s a provocative claim about an apparently major change in state law --  and one that was inserted without public hearing or discussion into a lengthy budget bill. That’s right up our alley.

First, a bit of background about the legislation.

It grew, in part, out of university concerns about legal liability for researchers in the wake of criminal investigations into the use of sheep and mice in experiments, said Eric Sandgren, director of the UW Research Animal Resources Center.

For three decades, UW-Madison used sheep in U.S. Navy-funded experiments related to decompression sickness in divers, Sandgren said. The sheep are euthanized at the end of the experiments.

In 2009, Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard found that UW-Madison researchers violated the crimes against animals law. He  declined to prosecute, saying it was not intentional or negligent.

In 2010, the Alliance for Animals and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) went to court seeking criminal charges against UW officials in connection with 26 sheep that died as a result of decompression experiments, the Madison Capital Times reported.

In that case, a Madison special prosecutor appointed by a judge in May 2011 determined university employees broke no laws, but he "scolded university officials for not having a better system in place for keeping track of state and federal laws," the Capital Times reported.

All right, let’s examine the proposed changes.

To back up her claim that the budget amendment would exempt researchers from the whole criminal statute, Reed pointed to the proposed amendment approved on June 3 by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. The committee did the preliminary work on the budget, which then went to the Assembly and Senate.

The bill markup document creates a new section in Chapter 951, the criminal statute that deals with dognapping, decompression, instigation of fights between animals, nutrition for confined animals and other acts.

Under the amendment, the statute would read: "This chapter does not apply to an animal that is being used for research or experimentation at an educational or research institution or to an animal that is being used for research or experimentation that is regulated under (federal laws)."

The change, as proposed, affects state criminal prohibitions on animal cruelty written into the statutes decades ago.

That sounds sweeping, and, indeed, it is accurate to say that the amendment would exempt university researchers from the state statute providing criminal penalties for animal cruelty, Sandgren said.

Sandgren defends the proposal and says it will not lead to more abuse.

He points to a federal law, the Animal Welfare Act, that is enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture. That law, another federal law, and UW’s own ethical standards, are enough to keep research within legal standards, Sandgren and other supporters of the change contend.

One co-sponsor of the multifaceted budget amendment for the university system, Rep. Patricia Strachota (R-West Bend), said a coalition of bioscience researchers sought the liability protection. A Medical College of Wisconsin spokesman said the members of the statewide coalition addressing the issue are: BioForward, Covance, the Medical College of Wisconsin, UW Health, UW Madison, UW System, Wisconsin Alumni Association, and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

The proposed change "removes the cloud of criminal prosecutions" for bona fide researchers, said Medical College spokesman Richard Katschke.

Reed says that is one cause for concern, among several.

She said the federal law was not as meaningful, because local district attorneys would be more inclined to listen to complaints than federal authorities. "That’s why we have state statutes," Reed said.

Reed also pointed out a potential loophole in the amendment language.

While the intent of the budget amendment appeared to be to exempt only bona fide research at educational/research institutions, we found the actual language in the bill markup does not make that distinction.

Strachota said legislators were planning to clean up the language to make it clear that only public educational institutions would be exempt.

One more issue before we take stock.

Sandgren took issue with the wording of a Humane Society e-mail alert to its supporters that said the proposed change means researchers "can do anything without worrying about any legal protections for animals at all."

That e-mail alert did not make it explicitly clear, Reed acknowledged, that the society was talking about state legal protections. But the news release published by the group, as well as its website, covered that point.

How does it all stack up?

The Wisconsin Humane Society says a proposed state statute change will exempt researchers from all the state’s criminal prohibitions against animal cruelty. There’s disagreement about the real-world impact of the change, but the exemption itself is clear. The disagreement is related to federal laws and ethical standards, which would not be affected -- and were not mentioned by the group.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Wisconsin Humane Society, press release, June 13, 2011

Interview with Anne Reed, Humane Society executive director, June 13, 2011

Interview with Eric Sandgren, director, Research Animal Resources Center, UW-Madison, June 13, 2011

Interview with State Rep. Patricia Strachota (R-West Bend), June 13, 2011

Email interview with Richard Katschke, spokesman, Medical College of Wisconsin, June 14, 2011

State budget amendment (#27) and proposed changes to language of Chapter 951

Animal Welfare Act, federal statute

State statute, Crimes Against Animals

Madison Capital Times, Prosecutor won’t file charges in UW-Madison sheep deaths, May 23, 2011

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Wisconsin Humane Society says state budget amendment exempts scientific researchers from state criminal law on animal cruelty

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