Animal activists press VU to not use cats in study By Bill Snyder / Tennessean Staff Writer
Animal activists press VU to not use cats in study
By Bill Snyder / Tennessean Staff Writer
Animal rights activists are calling on Vanderbilt University to stop experiments on cats that could lead to the first functional artificial eye.
The research, conducted in the lab of electrical engineering professor A.B. Bonds, involves studying electrical signals involved in vision by inserting electrodes into the brains of cats.
Michael Budkie, an animal rights activist from Milford, Ohio, said during a news conference yesterday at the Clubhouse Inn in Nashville that the research was "gruesome," and painful to the animals, which are destroyed after the experiment.
He shared letters from three doctors and two veterinarians who said Bonds' research was irrelevant and could be done without using animals. All of them are members of organizations that support animal rights.
Bonds denied that the experiments caused the animals pain. He said the cats are placed under anesthesia, "and at any indication the animal is waking up, we increase the dosage of anesthesia," he said in a telephone interview.
As for the relevancy of Bonds' work, Ehud Kaplan, a research professor at Mt. Sinai Medical School in New York, said that some of Bonds' discoveries about vision have been pivotal in improving understanding about how the brain "sees."
"A.B. is one of the best visual neuroscientists on the planet," said Kaplan, a neurophysiologist who also studies vision.
The animal activists said they became aware of Bonds' research this spring when they discovered that some of the cats he used in his research were purchased for $5 each from the Metro pound.
Bonds' lab purchased 14 cats in 1998, and 4 cats in the first two months of 1999, but no pound animals have been sold to Vanderbilt since February, university officials said.
Judy Laudebache, who became Metro's new animal control director in July, said she would only take the job if no pound animals were sold for medical research. In August, the Metro Council passed an ordinance banning the practice.
"I am vehemently opposed to pound seizure, which is the sale of animals which could have been someone's pet," Laudebache said. "There may be a need sometimes for legitimate research, but I don't view animals from a shelter as part of that issue. We're here to protect them."
Bonds said he purchased some cats from the Metro pound in the past when it was difficult to obtain animals bred for laboratory research. But now Vanderbilt obtains its lab animals only from facilities approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, university officials added.
The animal rights activists, who included Don Elroy of Gatlinburg-based Tennessee Network for Animals, and Donna Cardellino of Nashville, said they remained concerned that Vanderbilt would try to buy pound animals from surrounding counties.
"We are absolutely not purchasing animals from any pound facilities anywhere," responded Michael J. Schoenfeld, Vanderbilt's vice chancellor for media relations.
Bonds said his research, which is supported by the National Institutes of Health, has been approved at three levels: by Vanderbilt's Animal Care and Use Committee, the National Institutes of Health's animal welfare committee, and the USDA's Animal/Plant/Health Inspections Service.
Kaplan said Bonds' discoveries are helping scientists understand the code of electrical impulses that brain cells use to translate visual images from the retina into pictures the brain can "see."
One day scientists may be able to put electrodes into the brains of blind people to restore their sight, he said in a telephone interview.
But that won't happen unless scientists crack the brain's code through animal research, Kaplan added. It's unethical to do those experiments in humans, he said, and the information cannot be gleaned any other way.
"We would not know what to tell the computer to send into these stimulating electrodes without the work that A.B. and others are doing," Kaplan said.
Budkie, who was trained as an animal health technician but who currently directs Stop Animal Exploitation Now, an organization in Cincinnati, was unrelenting.
"We'd like to see animal experiments eliminated," he said. "We believe it is antiquated technology and doesn't provide useful information about human disease."
If Vanderbilt does not halt Bonds' experiments voluntarily, Elroy added, "we'll take it to the next level and try to get the funding stopped."
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