PETA to Navy: Ban the Use of Animals in Cruel Decompression Tests

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Update (February 1, 2023): Victory for sheep! Documents obtained by PETA show that the gruesome decompression experiments on sheep that the U.S. Navy had been funding at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have been abruptly stopped years ahead of schedule. Read more about this win here. Then take action below to urge the Navy to ban these cruel tests on all animals.

Original Post

The U.S. Navy is squeezing the life out of sheep and other animals in gruesome and often deadly decompression sickness/illness (DCS/DCI) and oxygen toxicity experiments that are as pointless as they are out of step with international standards. Joined by retired Rear Admiral Marion J. Balsam, PETA sent a letter to Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, urging him to end these tests on animals and switch to superior, human-relevant research. After he failed to respond, PETA sent a letter to his boss, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, urging him to intervene.

During recent tests that involved Navy experimenters at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Naval Medical Center San Diego in San Diego, and Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, sheep were locked in high-pressure chambers and exposed to a significant atmospheric pressure equivalent to what a diver would experience at 257 feet below sea level, where they were left for 31 minutes. The sheep were then forced to decompress and endure “severe DCS,” crippling “joint pains,” “bloating”—which was treated by stomach “puncture”—and “cardiovascular collapse” or “spinal cord injury,” causing “distress or paralysis” and frequently resulting in death. This extremely painful experience is commonly referred to as “the bends” and occurs when bubbles of nitrogen gas form in the blood, muscles, and organs, including the brain. Sheep were then injected with an experimental oxygen-carrying substance that failed to reduce mortality, killed, and dissected.

Other DCS/DCI experiments conducted or funded by the Navy have included additional horrors:

  • Experimenters injected mice with a substance of interest and exposed them to the same atmospheric pressure (the equivalent of nearly 258 feet below sea level)—this time for two full hours—and then forced them to decompress for another two hours before they killed and dissected them.
  • Experimenters implanted radio transmitters into the brains of rats, inserted and sutured electrodes into their torsos, and exposed them to five atmospheres of pressure (the equivalent of about 165 feet below sea level) until the animals began having seizures—then they likely killed them.
  • Experimenters decapitated rats and exposed parts of their brain tissue to high oxygen concentration and pressure.

PETA has caught the Navy conducting these types of experiments before. In 2010, the Navy yanked its funding for DCS/DCI experiments conducted at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as a direct result of a criminal investigation launched in response to a petition filed by PETA and Alliance for Animals. The special prosecutor, David A. Geier, appointed by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Amy Smith, who was overseeing this case, wrote the following at that time:

[T]he Petitioners’ actions have brought into question the necessity of the continuation of the decompression research. The Department of the Navy has pulled its grant and the research using the sheep has stopped. … There is no doubt that the animal suffers during the period from leaving the chamber until the ultimate injection to euthanize the animal.

However, it appears the Navy has recently resumed its crude testing program.

Foreign Navies Have Ended Decompression Tests on Animals
Continued animal experiments such as these make the Navy an outlier among the navies of our peer nations. France and the U.K. have already scrapped their respective naval DCS/DCI animal testing programs. In 2008, Derek Twigg—who at the time was the U.K. parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Defence—wrote the following to Parliament:

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has today announced the end of its immediate requirement for testing on live goats as part of its hyperbaric research in support of the MoD’s submarine escape rescue and abandonment system.

Animal Testing Is Pointless
It’s obvious that sheep, mice and rats are not miniature humans. Major anatomical and physiological differences between species make any results obtained through these experiments useless to humans, and Navy brass has even admitted this. In 2010, Dr. Wayman W. Cheatham, director of the Navy Medical Research Center at the time, wrote this to PETA:

The impact of physiological differences between species with regard to disease processes … is well recognized throughout the medical research community.”

The Naval Medical Research Center itself has publicly acknowledged the inherent limitations of using animals to predict the effects of DCS/DCI in humans, stating that “animal DCS in many cases is more severe than that in humans and, therefore, appears ‘different’ from the average human case.” Other experts agree. “The problem with these animal experiments is that no animal model can replicate what happens in a human,” diving expert John Lippmann has said.

Animal-Free Research Methods Exist
In vitro studies and reanalysis of existing human-diver data have already yielded promising results that are directly applicable to humans in diving conditions. Machine-learning techniques may also aid in the prediction of symptoms such as seizures during hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and modeling can also improve the performance of dive computers to equip divers in avoiding DCS/DCI. Animals need not die to advance human health.

What You Can Do
Please urge the Navy and the U.S. Department of Defense to get in line with international standards and ban the use of all animals in these deadly and pointless DCS/DCI tests in favor of superior, human-relevant, non-animal research methods.

Erik K.
US Navy
David A.
US Navy

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