In March, UNC-Chapel Hill instructed its laboratories to suspend all experiments deemed nonessential as the school prepared to shut down on-campus activities due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus. Scientists were instructed to write with red ink “priority” on the rodent cages that needed to be maintained. The rest of the animals were likely euthanized, a new complaint from animal rights organization PETA claims.
And while that’s terrible, that’s not exactly what PETA is harping on. They want to know why taxpayer money was used to fund “nonessential” experiments in the first place if they weren’t necessary and are calling on state auditor Beth Wood to find out just what happened after the school shut down.
“UNC-Chapel Hill’s experiments on animals were undoubtedly cruel, and apparently not even the school can justify them,” PETA Vice President Shalin Gala said in a statement. “PETA is calling on state officials to follow the money and prevent taxpayer waste—and animal suffering—in laboratories that should never have received funding in the first place.”
This isn’t the school’s first beef with PETA. The organization had previously conducted undercover investigations of the school’s rodent laboratories in 2002 and 2003, claiming to discover understaffing, neglect, overcrowding, and animal cruelty. In 2015, following more undercover investigations at factory farms, North Carolina passed a law aimed to curtail animal rights organizations from going undercover by giving employers the ability to sue those who leak internal documents. However, a court overruled the so-called “ag gag law” earlier this year due First Amendment concerns: not only would it stop legitimate whistleblowers and allow employers to conceal criminal activity, but it would also prevent journalists from doing their jobs.
But as one smokescreen lifted, the pandemic seemingly dropped another curtain. As coronavirus panic quickly spread over the country in March, the school, which receives $543 million in state funding, some of which is funneled into its agricultural experiments, scaled-down its laboratories. All experiments that fell outside “critical research activity,” were to be “ramped down, curtailed, suspended or delayed,” by March 25. Exactly what that entailed was left ambiguous, but PETA believes the result was the “the destruction of hundreds of animals UNC-Chapel Hill deemed extraneous, noncritical, or nonessential or described using similar terminology.”
The school did not respond to the INDYs inquiry on how many “nonessential” animals were euthanized that did not fall under “critical research activity.” Instead, they put forward in a PR statement highlighting the importance of the research conducted at the school.
“Critical research activity, including the care and maintenance of our animal population, is continuing under the University’s reduced operations,” the school’s media team responded in a statement. “UNC-Chapel Hill is committed to humanely caring for the animals our researchers rely on in their search to cure and treat disease – both during normal operations and in this time of reduced operations. Our employees and the administration take their ethical responsibility to care for our animals very seriously.”
No one is debating the necessity of critical research, but if the school has nothing to hide, why not be transparent about what happened at the labs this spring? Furthermore, it’s unclear how much of the research happening at the school falls outside of the realm of “critical.” On both counts, UNC isn’t telling.
PETA believes that ceasing these experiments will cost more in the long run, because of the cost of restarting the research and repopulating the animals.
This “nonessential” research, PETA claims, comes “at an apparent annual cost of millions of dollars, some of which may have been funded by the state,” and is “ is the height of absurdity and wastefulness.” That deserves a hard look, not only from an ethical but fiscal perspective.
The mysterious extent of that wastefulness might appeal to Wood, a Democrat running for reelection this year who has served as an auditor for a decade. She did not respond to the INDY’s inquiry on if she intends to investigate the school’s animal testing programs or the aftermath of shutting down its labs.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.