Inside the nine-story Medical Research Building at Oregon Health Science University's Marquam Hill campus, about 28,000 mice and 250 rats currently await use in medical experiments.
The rats live paired in transparent plastic containers slightly larger than shoe boxes, stacked on shelves in rooms fed purified air. Researchers in white lab coats shuffle in and out jotting notes, while the rodents run in circles and scratch manically at their containers.
Last summer, Tony Carr took a job here as a lab assistant working on research such as implanting nicotine pumps into rats. The work wasn't glamorous, but after graduating last year from Macalester College in Minnesota with a double major in neuroscience and psychology, he saw it as a stepping stone to a science career.
"I knew it was going to be dirty work. I guess I thought that somewhere down the line, you're doing something that will better humankind," says Carr, 22, who lives in Northeast Portland.
CARR: "I knew it was going to be dirty work." IMAGE: Jarod Opperman
But Carr abruptly walked away from the $27,000-a-year job after three months, saying OHSU's animal research can't be justified ethically or scientifically. Now Carr is going public, hoping his story will prevent unnecessary suffering and lead to better science that doesn't rely as much on animals.
"I think people have full awareness that animal research isn't pretty," he says. "What they don't know is that it's not a necessary evil."
After quitting OHSU, Carr contacted In Defense of Animals, a nonprofit whose Northwest director, Matt Rossell, made headlines by going undercover to work at OHSU's National Primate Research Center (see "The Spy Who Loved Monkeys," WW, Feb. 7, 2001). In Defense of Animals has now hired Carr as a paid consultant.
OHSU officials staunchly defend their practices, saying they treat animals humanely and that many breakthroughs would be impossible without them. They say legitimate activists have played a role in improving animal research, but they acknowledge a fundamental divide.
"You have people who feel there is no use you can put an animal to that is worthy," says Charlotte Shupert, associate director of research integrity at OHSU. "But the vast majority of people think asking service of an animal is a legitimate thing when there is no other way to get the answer and it is critical to human health."
Carr says he didn't set out to expose the lab. Growing up in Libertyville, Ill., he had no strong feelings about animal rights. He helped do animal experiments in college and wasn't troubled then. But what he saw at OHSU, he says, pushed him into activism.
"They're not worried about animals' welfare," Carr says. "It's not even on their radar. They're worried about getting their job done in as little time as possible."
Before he was hired last August, he says, two rats were euthanized for sores from botched injections of alcohol into their abdomens—an event OHSU officials confirm. Carr says such mistakes were common at the lab, a charge OHSU vehemently denies.
After a half-hour training session, Carr was assigned to cut into rats' backs and surgically implant up to two pumps, each the size of a large cold capsule, between their shoulder blades. The pumps administered nicotine to study the drug's effect on impulsive behavior.
The day after Carr operated on two rats, he found gaping wounds in their backs and the pumps missing. Carr says they must have been so uncomfortable that the rats ripped them out and ate them.
His boss at OHSU, behavioral neuroscience professor Suzanne Mitchell, says it's still a mystery what happened to the pumps. She asked Carr to put new ones into the same rats and continue the experiment, which he did.
Carr calls it cruel to use the same rats again—Mitchell says there was no sign they were harmed. But Carr saves his harshest criticism for the quality of the science that comes from animal experiments, and the money trail behind them.
Carr is not alone. A growing number of scientists and health-care groups are stepping forward to question what some call an over-reliance on animal research that's hindering medical progress. Critics of current "animal models" for cancer and AIDS include MIT's Robert Weinberg, the National Breast Cancer Coalition's Fran Visco and Steven Bende of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Carr finally quit OHSU when Mitchell sought approval to give rats lead to measure the heavy metal's effect on ADHD. Carr questioned whether ADHD, a controversial diagnosis even in humans, could really be studied in rats.
He learned that all but one member of the boards that approve animal experiments at OHSU are employees at the school—and for every $100,000 in federal grant money for an animal experiment, OHSU gets an extra $54,000 for salaries and operations.
Carr says that's a clear conflict of interest that leads the board to approve virtually any experiment the feds agree to fund. Mitchell's lead experiment, which had been funded for $74,000, was approved by the board overseeing her work in November.
OHSU officials deny any conflict of interest. "The [review boards are] absolutely vigilant," Shupert says. "We do not do experiments where there is nothing to be learned."
OHSU used 223,399 mice and 4,547 rats for experiments in the past year.