St. Louis The animal rights group PETA planted an infiltrator posing as an employee at a mid-Missouri animal laboratory for nine months.
The spy's work later formed the basis of the group's negative publicity campaign aimed at Sinclair Research Center in Hatton, outside Columbia, and several of its clients, including pet food giant Iams, St. Louis-based Nestle Purina Petcare and St. Louis biotech firm Isto Technologies, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday.
The young woman, whom the newspaper did not name, worked undercover for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, armed with a tiny, hidden video camera.
She gained access by landing a job as a research associate working with the hundreds of dogs, cats, sheep and pigs used in experiments for different companies.
PETA wrote a 104-page complaint to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, alleging dozens of instances of failure to provide adequate care for animals at Sinclair. The agency is reviewing the claims, a spokesman said.
PETA also disseminated its claims of a "hidden world of cruelty" on its Web site and to the press.
Owner denies abuse
Sinclair's owner, Guy Bouchard, admits problems, but denies any systematic animal abuse. The center has lost clients and laid off 40 percent of its staff.
PETA, based in Norfolk, Va., believes that, "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment."
In the last three years, PETA efforts have led to the prosecution of two men who were filmed beating hogs on a hog farm, and a federal inquiry into mistreatment of laboratory mice and rats at the University of North Carolina.
Last year, it convinced the Safeway supermarket chain to force its meat suppliers to adopt more humane treatment of animals raised for slaughter. McDonald's recently agreed not to buy chicken from farmers who "de-beak" birds or keep them in cages smaller than 72 square inches.
Sinclair Research Center, formerly operated by the University of Missouri-Columbia, is one of 35 animal research labs in Missouri certified by the USDA. It now serves as a private, contract animal laboratory, conducting tests for companies.
The USDA said Sinclair had no record of violating the federal minimum standards for care and treatment of animals.
Several studies were under way during the PETA spy's tenure at Sinclair:
- Tests for Iams using mixed-breed dogs to evaluate the nutrition of dog food.
- Cat litter studies for Nestle Purina Petcare.
- Pet food studies for Menu Foods, a Canadian private label pet food maker with a plant in Kansas.
- Sheep from Isto Technologies involved in studies of a new lab technique to grow cartilage for humans.
Animals appeared distressed
The spy shot hours of videotape inside Sinclair from May 2002 until February. It included shots of a pig in distress convulsing, and dogs and cats cowering, pacing, clawing and circling wildly in their cages -- what PETA claims are signs of distressed and bored animals.
The videotape documented employees saying surgeries on sheep were rushed and performed with problematic medical equipment.
The tape also showed dogs walking with difficulty on metal-slotted cage floors, the bars too narrow for their paws. It showed one beagle immobile and in pain, its leg stuck in the slotted bottom. Another dog is later shown with a wound from having its leg caught.
Bouchard said there were problems with the cage design, which has a slotted floor to collect animal feces. But he said the problems were isolated. And any video of caged animals, no matter their condition, plays on the emotions of the public, he said.
He said the animals had excellent veterinary care.
Another problem, Bouchard and Iams claim, is that the spy was put in charge of implementing an Iams enrichment program -- which should have provided exactly the type of care PETA criticizes them for not giving.
This spring, Iams canceled its contract with Sinclair after a surprise inspection revealed problems with the air temperature and ventilation in the cage rooms, a lack of resting boards for the dogs and inadequate socialization for the animals.
Isto Technologies said it was reviewing the allegations and took the matter seriously.
But Purina Petcare said it had seen no evidence that animals in its studies were mistreated.
Bouchard, meanwhile, said he was considering legal action against PETA for its use of an undercover investigator.
Bouchard plans to keep operating Sinclair and woo back some of his lost clients. He has installed better cages with new flooring for dogs so they won't get their feet caught. He also has ordered new cat cages, increasing their size to 9 square feet.