PETA is demanding an immediate investigation into the UAB laboratory where the internal organs of genetically modified pigs are transplanted into baboons. Our complaint follows a whistleblower report alleging a litany of violations, including that animals there endure unimaginable pain and distress because of inattentive, unqualified staff in a dangerous laboratory with shoddy and falsified recordkeeping.
PETA is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate the whistleblower’s laundry list of potential violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act in David K.C. Cooper’s xenotransplantation laboratory, where organs are cut out of one species and implanted in another. PETA also called on UAB’s president to revoke permission for the experiments and urged United Therapeutics, which has bankrolled these experiments, to rethink its funding.
University of Alabama–Birmingham (UAB) Whistleblower’s Allegations to PETA
- Experimenters didn’t follow proper protocols and other policies regarding animal care.
- They failed to comply with common veterinary standards.
- They used expired or unsuitable medications.
- They falsified veterinary care records to hide failures in attending to animals’ suffering.
Staffers Applied Laundry Detergent to Laja the Baboon's Gaping Surgical Wound
In one astonishing case, staff used Woolite laundry detergent on the open, hemorrhaging surgical wound of a baboon named Laja. A pig kidney had been transplanted into Laja in January 2019. By September, she was dead. But not before the supposed “success” of her experimental surgery had been paraded—via a 33-second video—in front of the United Therapeutics honchos who bankrolled the operation. The video shows that in June, Laja was quite thin and had lost considerable body hair as she engaged in stereotypic behavior, a sign of extreme psychological distress.
Laja’s condition worsened over time and she appeared to be in terrible pain. Fluid built up in her abdomen, and pockets of fluid collected along the ulcerated transplant surgery incision. She developed a sore on her thigh. Experimenters applied Woolite laundry detergent to both to hide the poor condition of her skin, according to the whistleblower.
By September 2019, Laja’s condition had deteriorated further, and she was euthanized. According to the whistleblower, there would have been no endpoint to the experiment had she not rejected the transplant. In other words, she would have been kept alive in spite of her suffering, just so the experimenters could collect more data.
In another experiment, a pig’s heart was transplanted into a baboon, who was then placed in an oxygen chamber. A photograph shows not only the baboon’s miserable post-operative condition but also that an intravenous tube was leaking. Within two days, the baboon had died.
E-mails shared by the whistleblower reveal a catalog of pain and misery. In one exchange, experimenters discuss underfeeding a pig in order to keep her from growing so large that her organs would not be able to be removed and transplanted into the body of another animal.
Incompetent Staff, Expired Medication, and Falsified Records
According to the whistleblower, experimenters in Cooper’s laboratory often drew blood repeatedly from the same vein or ineptly searched for veins, causing the baboons excessive bruising and more injury than necessary.
In September 2019, the whistleblower reported the use of expired or inappropriate meds. But the whistleblower says UAB’s overseeing authority “never did too much … since they never directly saw [lab staff] use it, but I did see them use it and administer it to the baboons.”
The whistleblower reports that lab staffers also falsified records to make it appear that they had provided veterinary care sooner than they actually had.
Disregard for Safety: Drugs, Needles, and Contamination
The Cooper laboratory staff had a pervasive, laissez-faire attitude toward safety, according to the whistleblower. For instance, photographs show bottles of ketamine—a controlled substance—apparently left by staffers in unlocked desk drawers. Syringes and needles were left out in the open, and one visiting staffer refused to change out of his animal facility gear when he returned to the office, potentially spreading contaminants to everyone there.
Many of these concerns were brought to the attention of laboratory management, who did nothing, according to the whistleblower.
Animals Are Not Warehouses for Spare Parts
Xenotransplantation experiments at UAB and elsewhere are pointless. Simple adjustments in government policy combined with public education would yield an increase in organ donations for human patients and better protection of the public’s health without compromising the well-being of animals.
In countries that have passed presumed consent laws, which presume that people’s organs are available for donation upon their death unless they opt out, or mandated choice laws, which require adults to choose whether to donate their organs, the number of organs available for donation has increased dramatically. For instance, since changing its law in the 1970s, France has seen organ donations shoot up by nearly 5,000%.
Shut Down the Wicked UAB Transplant Laboratory
Cooper’s laboratory—part of a $19.5 million, five-year xenotransplantation program underwritten by United Therapeutics—should be shut down immediately.
Pigs are social, playful, protective animals who bond with each other. They’re known to dream, recognize their own names, and lead social lives of a complexity previously observed only in primates. They’ve even been seen showing empathy for other pigs who are happy or distressed. They aren’t tools for speciesist experimenters who should instead be promoting human organ donations.