Brian Vincent: Sea turtle experiments show UBC must come clean on animal research
On a Sunday afternoon some weeks ago, Stop UBC Animal Research’s phone rang. On the other end of the line was an earnest, slightly nervous sounding voice. The caller told me an alarming story—the University of British Columbia was about to kill seven highly endangered green sea turtles who had been experimented on and housed at the university for more than 10 years. UBC was set to destroy the animals by the end of March.
The reason? According to the UBC whistleblower, the university was closing some animal research facilities on UBC’s south campus and had no place to move the turtles. Then the caller, as if interrupted, abruptly said, “I can’t talk any more,” and hung up. That mysterious call was the beginning of what would soon become an international sensation—a story that would go viral across the web, outrage conservation and animal advocacy groups across the globe, and tarnish UBC’s carefully crafted public image.
The next day, we tipped off the Vancouver Sun about the whistleblower call. Intrepid reporter Kim Pemberton immediately contacted Bill Milsom, head of UBC’s zoology department, who, surprisingly, confirmed the university’s plans to kill the imperiled animals as part of a study into turtle diving depths. The story, “UBC to kill endangered sea turtles in the spring”, which the Sun ran on its front page, made a big splash. Calls from around the world flooded into the UBC president’s office, urging the university to spare the turtles. Conservation organizations, such as the California-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project, also weighed in by writing directly to UBC. And major news outlets from CBC, CTV, Global TV, CKNW, News 1130, to the Huffington Post (the leading political blog in the U.S.), the States’ National Public Radio, and even media in the Cayman Islands picked up the story.
According to UBC, the university obtained the turtles from a Cayman Islands turtle farm in the late ’90s and early 2000. Since then, UBC researchers had been conducting experiments, some invasive, on the turtles. “The final experiments require major surgery,” Milsom told the Sun. At the end of the surgery, anesthesia will be increased until the turtles die, Milsom said.
All seven species of sea turtles are at high risk of extinction. Listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, sea turtles face a host of threats. Those threats include pollution, especially from oil spills; beach front development; entrapment in fishing nets; ingestion of marine debris, such as plastic bags; the illegal turtle shell trade; and turtle egg and meat consumption. In addition, artificial lighting along beaches often discourages female turtles from nesting and disorients hatchlings who may mistakenly wander inland, exposing them to predation.
Quick to do damage control over the uproar, UBC announced it was brokering a deal with a U.K. aquarium to trade its seven turtles for the aquarium’s older turtles. UBC officials said the reptilian arrivals from Britain would become the subjects of the final experiment then killed. Upon learning details of the negotiations, Stop UBC Animal Research immediately panned the plan. In a statement issued to media, we said the exchange idea was “dead in the water” for us because it “traded one life for another.” While Stop UBC Animal Research is encouraged UBC appears to be sensitive to public concerns, our organization will not support any deal that shifts the suffering from UBC’s turtles to those at a separate facility.
But the UBC turtle saga is only part of a much bigger, far more bleak, backstory. What lies beneath is a sad tale of animal cruelty, questionable science, UBC’s attempts to demonize those who challenge its animal research, and a revered educational institution’s steadfast refusal to disclose information about its activities.
Since Stop UBC Animal Research launched just one year ago, we’ve received tips from a number of courageous UBC employees working inside the university’s labs. They, like the anxious Sunday afternoon caller, have risked their careers to expose UBC’s extensive animal research programs. Those tips have helped pull back UBC’s veil of secrecy, revealing disturbing details about the university’s highly invasive, painful, and ultimately lethal experiments on animals, including on cats, monkeys, rats, mice, piglets, rabbits, and many other animals.
In addition, Stop UBC Animal Research’s crack investigation team has made its own grim discoveries. For instance, we found one UBC researcher has experimented on cats for 30 years. In 2008, he received a five-year, federally funded grant for continued animal research. In his papers, including one published in 2008, the researcher described how he had cut open the backs of cats to expose their vertebrae, inserted titanium screws into the cats’ spinal columns to inhibit movement, and built restraint chambers around the cats’ exposed vertebra to give researchers access to the cats’ spinal columns and to fix the animals in a sitting position for recording sessions.
Stop UBC Animal Research also found UBC researchers have conducted studies on and off campus in which they:
”¢ Repeatedly poured a saline solution into newborn piglets’ lungs to induce respiratory failure. 
”¢ Captured wild songbirds in mist nets, withdrew their blood then decapitated some of the birds. 
More recently, Stop UBC Animal Research was provided documents relating to UBC’s experiments on non-human primates. According to that information, researchers have been:
”¢ Injecting toxins into monkeys’ brains to simulate “Parkinsonism”. A UBC report leaked to Stop UBC Animal Research states that one researcher is using four to eight non-human primates to create in the animals “a new, progressively degenerative ”˜model’ of Parkinson’s Disease.” According to the document, the UBC researcher’s experiment “uses rhesus monkeys which are receiving injections of proteasomal inhibitors into their brains. Head-holding devices have been surgically implanted into the monkeys’ brains, and protrude from the top of the monkeys’ heads, to be hooked up to frames when the researchers want to totally immobilize the animals presumably for injection of drugs and for scans at 3, 6, 9 and 12 months. The monkeys have been scanned after implantation but before injection, for baseline (or starting point) information. Some animals are to be killed at 6 months, some at 12 months.” According to an April 12, 2010, progress report published by TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, UBC’s Parkinson’s experiment is active and ongoing. It is anticipated the monkeys will be killed by April, when the federal funding for the team runs out. Stop UBC Animal Research has offered to buy the monkeys so they can be placed in a primate sanctuary.
”¢ Administering electroconvulsive shock to monkeys to induce seizures.
”¢ Blinding monkeys in vision deprivation studies. 
”¢ Injecting particles into the fetuses of pregnant monkeys.
Equally troubling is UBC’s lack of transparency and its aggressive and systematic campaign to demonize critics. To deflect attention away from its ghoulish experiments, UBC has attempted to brand Stop UBC Animal Research or anyone who questions the university as “extremist”. So far, UBC has yet to provide us with critical information about its animal research, including data on the number and species of animals at the university, protocols, lab inspection reports, records of non-compliance, veterinary care logs, or video and photo documentation. Twice, Stop UBC Animal Research has filed formal complaints with the provincial government against UBC for the university’s failure to comply with statutory deadlines under B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Since much of UBC’s animal research is funded by taxpayers, we believe the public has a right to know what UBC is doing to animals with that money, and whether the research correlates to real improvements in human health. UBC’s reluctance to provide us with information gives the impression the university has something to hide.
Which brings us back to the latest story about UBC’s sea turtles. Had it not been for that brave UBC insider, the public would have no idea UBC was about to kill one of the world’s most at-risk animals. Obviously, disclosure of information by whistleblower is not an ideal method for informing the public. But until UBC comes clean about its animal research, the courage of those willing to sound the alarm is the only way we’ll find out what is going on behind UBC’s closed doors. It is time UBC quit withdrawing into its shell to avoid answering questions about its experiments on animals.
Brian Vincent is director of Stop UBC Animal Research.
 AJ Singh, V. Bronshtein, M. Khashu, K. Lee, J.E. Potts, P. Chessex. “Vitamin A is systemically bioavailable following intratracheal administration with surfactant in an animal model of newborn respiratory distress.” Pediatr Res. 2010 Jun; 67(6):619-23.
 A. Elida, Newman M. Neurosteroids and Stress Physiology in Adult Songbirds. Neuroscience, UBC. 2009.
 A. Churg, Zhou S., Wang X., Wang R., Wright J.L. (Prof., Dept. of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, UBC). The role of interlukin-1 beta in murine cigarette smoke-induced emphysema and small airway remodeling. American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology April 40(4):482-90, 2009.