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April 1998
Rockefeller Relents: Anatomy of a Victory

By Barbara Stagno


After 18 months of intense protests and actions by In Defense of Animals (IDA), Rockefeller University has finally ended a decades-long research project that resulted in the maiming and killing of hundreds of cats. In a written statement dated December 15, 1997, Rockefeller University affirmed that "the Wilson/Miller research has ended..." and that "there is no plan to reactivate these protocols in the future."

     Neurophysiologist Victor J. Wilson, who started his research in the 1960s, invaded the brains of cats in an attempt to analyze feline balance function. In a typical experiment, Wilson decerebrated the cats (severed the brain from the spinal cord) and discontinued anesthesia. He paralyzed the cats with drugs, inserted electrodes into their brains and spinal cords, attached them to a stereotaxic frame and mounted them to a motorized tilt table that inclined the cats to different positions. He then recorded how the cats' brains responded to the tilts, and killed them after the experiment, which often lasted hours.

     Wilson was appointed head of his own department at Rockefeller University where he was joined over the years by many vivisectors carrying out variations of these cat-brain experiments. His most recent collaborator, Alan D. Miller, also used severely invasive procedures on cats to study vestibular (balance) functions, in addition to the brain's control of vomiting. In one of Miller's experiments, a fully conscious cat was forced through the use of massive drugs to vomit 97 times in a three-and-a-half hour time period.

The Campaign

During the first year of the campaign, IDA staged three major demonstrations at Rockefeller University, each attracting crowds of 300 people or more. Throughout the entire campaign, protests were an inextricable part of the effort to stop the Wilson/Miller experiments. In September 1996, IDA initiated weekly protests outside the University's main gate to drive home the message that the cruel cat experiments must stop. The once quiet campus secluded behind the stone-and- wrought-iron gates now became the scene of an ongoing animal rights debate. Because of the campus' remote location on Manhattan's eastern border, the protests functioned less as an outreach vehicle and more to force the University to acknowledge the contempt of animal advocates. They also served to embarrass the University and to tarnish its pristine image as an esteemed institution of knowledge and culture in the community. (Rockefeller University is the site of frequent concerts and other cultural events open to the public.) A typical response from local pedestrians encountering protesters was shock and dismay that such experiments were occurring.

     These were the results IDA was hoping to elicit, yet the protests served to fulfill another dimension: planting doubts and indecision within the research community. Week after week the presence of animal rights activists on York Avenue--home to the biomedical research labs of New York Hospital, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Rockefeller University--caused vivisectors to defend their business to others and, more importantly, to themselves.

     With time, it seemed clear that the protests were shaking things up. Impartial insiders, affiliated with departments that had little or nothing to do with animal research, shared with us that the weekly protests had changed the tone of life inside the university. Vivisectors and non-vivisectors alike were now being forced to confront the ethics of animal research. A big surprise came one spring day, 10 months into the weekly protests, when a university employee related to one of the protesters that he believed we were having an enormous impact at the university. "You can't believe," he told her, "how much they're now fighting amongst themselves about research on animals." This told us unequivocally that our presence had forced the issue to surface and that at least some of the vivisectors were uncomfortable with their actions. That in itself was a great victory.

Going National

As the protests were occurring locally, thousands of people across the nation were moved to decry this barbarism. Animal advocates flooded Rockefeller University and Congress with letters and phone calls. The constant activist presence at Rockefeller University gained us coverage in The New York Times and Cat Fancy magazine. Activists circulated petitions to friends and co-workers, calling on Congress to terminate funding. In addition, IDA presented written testimony to the House Appropriations Committee regarding the waste of tax dollars to fund the research. Grassroots organizations spread the word about the Rockefeller experiments in their meetings and newsletters. The result was a groundswell of public outcry condemning the Wilson/Miller experiments.

     For months, IDA had attempted to meet with Rockefeller officials to express our concerns about the experiments. In February, 1997, the University finally acquiesced. After the meeting, IDA presented the University with a 14-page letter and report detailing blatant cruelty in the Wilson/Miller laboratory. Among other things, the letter challenged Rockefeller University to provide documentation that researchers in the Wilson Laboratory had monitored the brainwave function of the cats during experiments to prove that the animals were unconscious, as they claimed. No such documentation was ever received by IDA. This report was then bound and distributed to the Rockefeller University Board of Trustees, as well as to key members of Congress.

Larger Lessons

IDA's success in ending these terrible experiments proves that our efforts can make a difference. Too often, working to end the exploitation of animals is a lonely, frustrating business. Society has been taught that animal experiments are essential for medical progress, and that animals in laboratories lead comfortable lives, fully protected by strong, humane laws that prevent suffering. Trying to counteract these government- and industry-supported myths can be overwhelming and exhausting work. Our victories are few and hard-won.

Even in light of this victory, there is still much work to be done on this issue alone. Victor Wilson trained many vivisectors during his long career, many of whom are now conducting similarly gruesome experiments. In the course of the coming months, IDA plans to locate and investigate the work of these vivisectors and expose them to the public as well. At that time, we will call upon the thousands of people who spoke out against the Wilson/Miller experiments to express their strong opposition once more. Hans Reusch, the great antivivisectionist, wrote, "Most of what the whole world now admits to be true or takes for granted, and most great social reforms which have proved immensely beneficial, were originally advocated by a small, derided minority." Each of our victories serves to prove that the "small, derided minority" will indeed be heard.

Barbara Stagno and In Defense of Animals would like to thank Liz Hecht of Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Labs for her invaluable assistance, particularly in compiling the report to the Rockefeller IACUC.


Additonal Notes

Strategies for Street Discussion

Although IDA's weekly protests were small--usually 10 to 12 people--the protesters were typically quite interactive with pedestrians, a large percentage of whom were involved with the local labs. We were often challenged to defend our animal rights position, which we became better at as the weeks wore on. It wasn't long before many of the protesters developed quick responses for many of the verbal challenges hurled at us. One useful tactic we learned was to offer a challenge in return. For example, if someone approached saying "Scientists must test on animals in order to develop new drugs," we would ask that person if he or she could describe the process in which new drugs are developed. If they couldn't, here was the opportunity to point out that all drugs must go through human clinical trials regardless of being tested first on animals, and that most drugs do poorly in this phase, proving that this is an inferior way to go about the initial phase. If they were familiar with the process, they were forced to acquiesce to the limitations of drug testing on animals.

Ultimately, we learned that most people throw out questions about issues on which they have little knowledge (this includes researchers) and that by challenging them abruptly in turn, they would often drop the discussion. You could always tell when you had "won" the argument when your debater suddenly discontinued the conversation saying, "I don't have time for this," or "You animal rights people are all crazy." --B.S.



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