Pig protest at UM generic

Keaton Alexander, left, stands on the University of Montana campus last month with protesters concerned about UM becoming affiliated with biomedical research on pigs. The university has been recruiting a researcher with experience in spinal cord injuries and porcine testing.

A proposed pig research facility would not be located on campus, but the lab remains under consideration at the University of Montana.

"The location has not been determined," said Scott Whittenburg, vice president for research, on Friday. "It will not be on campus. And it will not be at Fort Missoula."

According to UM records, the university may consider sites outside Missoula County including locations closer to Hamilton.

UM officials have tried to keep the idea under wraps although internal communications show discussions about porcine research have been underway since at least May 2016.

Friday, UM had not yet decided whether to move forward on a proposal that involves hiring a faculty member with expertise in pig research, and opening the porcine research facility.

The idea already has drawn support and opposition. Some faculty members have weighed in to back the proposal – arguing animal research saves lives and is "vital to relieving human suffering."

But other faculty members and community members have protested the idea. Opponents have urged UM to fund "cutting-edge non-animal methods" instead of animal research.

Kevin Boileau, co-director of Freedom 4 Animals, has said he wants UM to engage the wider community about the research, and he provided public records from UM to the Missoulian on Friday.

In December, Anita Santasier, chair of the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science, sent a note to colleagues about the facility in response to a Missoulian story.

"One of the issues discussed centered around having one consistent and accurate voice," Santasier wrote. "We are not going public with the porcine facility until we get the president's OK, which is presently dependent on the overall cost estimate ...

"But I do believe we need to address the ethics and practice at UM for animal research in general."

In response, another faculty member agreed UM's response needed to be broad and not focused on one species.

"I think the response needs to reflect the importance of all animal models, not just pigs," said a professor in biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences. "That being said, (redacted) will be sending me some of the talking points she has used in public education regarding her projects.

"(For example I am pretty sure all injuries are induced under anesthesia)."

UM has been in discussions with a researcher and associate professor at the University of Alabama School of Medicine, Candace Floyd, about coming to Missoula.

Floyd's web page notes she directs a research team at her laboratory focused on spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. The Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation website identifies its spinal cord research program as having the only porcine lab in the U.S.

Friday, Whittenburg addressed the proposed location of the site, but otherwise declined to respond to questions. Whittenburg directed inquiries to communications director Paula Short, who agreed to an interview next week.

***

In emails, another research professor also urged recipients of the chain "try to take the focus off pigs and address the protections ... in place for all animal research at UM."

"A single well written statement (one consistent and accurate voice) from the university stating our commitment to animal welfare and upholding the highest standards of animal care for all work conducted at the university could go a long way to dispel some of the community concerns.

"If the large animal facility is approved, a community or university outreach forum could be set up to address questions and concerns at that time."

In the communication, UM employees also argued that faculty searches should not be subject to political pressure. UM is the "ideal environment" for discussing animal research, but a Faculty Senate meeting is a questionable forum for the dialogue, one professor argued.

Whittenburg agreed, the communication shows: "As you say, next, right wing groups will want us (to) open up searches and help choose a climate person."

***

In correspondence last summer, Whittenburg discussed purchasing or leasing a facility "to do the porcine work." The needs include an enclosed loading dock, surgery room, pre-surgery room, post-surgery room, animal run, and animal holding "for up to 15 pigs and the 30 pigs" for another UM researcher, an email said.

Whittenburg declined Friday to identify the species of pigs or address the specific projects UM might launch at such a lab.

An email notes the facility would also need a dirty wash room, clean room, and clean storage for cages, food and bedding, as well as office space, showers, a break room, and locker rooms for workers.

In July, the research vice president toured a potential facility near the airport, and at the time, he said in an email he believed UM was at least six months away from a facility, "assuming no major hurdles in getting approved," but likely closer to a year.

In correspondence, Whittenburg also suggested a site "outside Missoula County," writing that "permitting process in Missoula is tough."

The animal expenses were estimated at $100,000, according to the records. The funding sources were not clear, but Whittenburg said that UM would own the facility after five years and "can only make money on this."

"Large animal facilities are in demand," he said in early August.

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Reporter for the Missoulian