Animal Rights Spy Infiltrates Missouri Lab
By: Todd C. Frankel
Hatton, Mo. - They never suspected she was a spy.
She was just another research associate at the Sinclair Research Center animal laboratory in this tiny town outside Columbia, working with the hundreds of dogs, cats, sheep and pigs used in experiments for different companies.
She was in her late 20s and certainly friendly, her former co-workers recalled. She had straight brown hair with red highlights. She often took lunch at her desk, eating Ramen noodles or salad. She liked to talk about her two dogs. She once mentioned her father was a dentist, and she had the good teeth to prove it.
But like the tiny video camera she hid on her body, there was more to her than she let on. She was working undercover for the animal activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Her mission: document any mistreatment of animals.
For nine months, her deception - a possible violation of state law - continued. Then one day in February, she abruptly quit her job and disappeared.
A month later, her work surfaced as the backbone for PETA's launch of a negative publicity campaign against Sinclair and several of its clients, including pet food giant Iams, St. Louis-based Nestle Purina Petcare and St. Louis biotech firm Isto Technologies. PETA has splashed allegations on its Web site, called news conferences and complained to federal regulators to end what it calls a "hidden world of cruelty," where it claims terrified animals are confined to small cages for dubious research.
But figuring out what to believe is not so simple. The past several months has seen the renewal of a long-standing battle between two sworn enemies: PETA and companies that use animals for research. As the Foundation for Biomedical Research's Frankie Trull, who has watched the fight for years, said, "With PETA, there is no middle ground."
The campaign has made an impact. Sinclair, which denies there was systemic animal abuse while admitting there were problems, has already lost clients. Forty percent of its staff has been laid off. But Guy Bouchard, who owns and runs the center, said what has hurt the most is "the highest level of betrayal" by his former employee.
"No one survives when someone comes into your house to destroy you," Bouchard said. "I've done well all my life helping people and animals. Now this."
Birth of a PETA spy:
PETA's undercover investigators rarely talk about their exploits. The woman who infiltrated Sinclair agreed to share her experiences but did not disclose her name. Sinclair officials also declined to name her. Her identity and her role have been independently verified by the Post-Dispatch.
Her journey into radical activism was gradual, she said. It began when she was a teenager growing up near the East Coast. She started using only so-called cruelty free beauty products, those which haven't been tested on animals. In college, she became a vegetarian. A few years later, in 2002, she was working with primates at an animal sanctuary when she decided to take a job with PETA.
"I'm just a normal person who loves animals who felt they weren't doing enough," she said during a recent phone interview.
She quickly found her niche. She was uncomfortable taking the normal route of helping with PETA's vocal protests. She'd been there only two months but wanted to go undercover.
Mary Beth Sweetland said she tried to talk her out of it.
Sweetland is PETA's director of research and investigations. She is the handler for the group's undercover agents and knows how tough and lonely the assignments can be.
She trains the spies on how to use the recording equipment, how to conceal it, how to do their job and hopefully not break the law. She teaches them to be patient and thorough. She asks the more experienced investigators to give advice to the new charges. She stays in almost daily contact with her team, what she calls "my little army of the kind."
Sweetland declined to give the exact number of undercover agents employed by PETA. But her department had a nearly $3 million annual budget last year, according to the nonprofit group's filings with the IRS.
PETA is best known for its shocking antics and billboards. Last November, members jumped on stage at the Victoria's Secret fashion show in New York City to protest the wearing of fur. The group is currently going after Kentucky Fried Chicken with "KFC Cruelty" billboards in several cities. And PETA attracted lots of attention, and outrage, with ads based on the popular "Got Milk?" campaign suggesting, without evidence, that former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani got prostate cancer by drinking milk.
The group, based in Norfolk, Va., thirsts for attention. By that measure, it is a success. It now has 750,000 supporters who donated nearly $17 million to its operations last year. Celebrities have joined its cause. This is a group with a self-described radical agenda, summed up by its mission statement: "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment."
Despite the attention paid to its inventive marketing, the real change sought by PETA comes from its undercover work. "We are the heart and soul of this organization," Sweetland said.
In just the past three years, the missions 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.
PETA is achieving broader changes, too. Last year, it convinced the Safeway supermarket chain to force its meat suppliers to adopt more humane treatment of animals raised for slaughter. Recently, McDonald's bowed to PETA pressure and agreed not to buy chicken from farmers who "de-beak" birds or keep them in cages smaller than 72 square inches.
Now, they're targeting the use of laboratory animals.
Walking in the door:
Fresh off training, the young spy on PETA's payroll said she headed out to meet with a veteran PETA investigator in Kansas City. They spent a week holed up in a hotel there, where the veteran shared pointers. One day they went to the circus and were predictably upset.
"Oh, the things people make animals do," the spy recalled. "It's horrific."
She then drove to Springfield and began job-hunting in earnest. She looked online, in newspapers and in the phone book. No luck. She punched up a government posting of registered research facilities, picked a name at random and called the number.
It was Sinclair Research Center.
They asked her to send her résumé. Everything on it was true, even her name, she said. Two days later, she was called for an interview. They liked her but wanted someone who had experience with computer spreadsheets. She ran out and bought books on how to use the software. As with all her other expenses, PETA picked up the tab. She went back two weeks later and showed off her new skills.
Bouchard, who runs the center, was impressed. "It's the type of person you look for," he said.
She started her new job on May 6, 2002.
Sinclair Research Center is one of 35 animal research labs in Missouri, including seven in St. Louis, and 41 in Illinois that are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Sinclair is a collection of white metal-frame buildings with green trim on 200 acres surrounded by farmland in Callaway County. The construction may be simple, but the facility uses state-of-the-art energy recovery and ventilation systems.
Many of the buildings are shaped like double-long trailers and contain two animal rooms separated by a procedure area. The animal rooms feature metal cages stacked two-high with a wide aisle down the middle. One room might be full of black Yucatan pigs for a human cardiovascular drug trial. Another might hold a dozen tri-colored beagles eating a new pet food formula.
Bouchard's office is at the end of a second-floor hallway inside the center's only two-story building. The sound of barking dogs filters up from an animal room below. The air is stuffy with the smell of animals.
"The people we have are all animal lovers," Bouchard said during a recent visit. "You don't get into research to get rich. You get into research because you love animals."
Bouchard took over the Sinclair operation from the University of Missouri at Columbia in 1994. For almost 30 years, the school ran the facility at a different location in Columbia, where it had done groundbreaking work in the use of animals to track human diseases.
Bouchard was the attending veterinarian at Sinclair when the school considered closing it. Instead, he took the center private.
The new Sinclair Research Center started out with one client. By the time the spy walked in the front door, the center had many. And the transfer of operations from the Columbia site to Callaway County was nearly complete.
Bouchard, 40, is a big man with a boyish mop of light brown hair. He speaks with a thick French accent, a legacy of growing up on a farm in Rougemont, Canada, outside Montreal. His father was a police officer but also kept livestock. Much of the work fell to his two sons. Before he was 4, Bouchard was helping his older brother feed 5,000 turkeys a day. He also had a pet pig.
Bouchard earned his doctorate of veterinary medicine in Montreal, before coming in 1990 to the University of Missouri for graduate studies in animal reproduction.
A contract lab:
Sinclair is a contract animal laboratory. Just as other sectors have increasingly turned to outsourcing, companies that need to conduct animal tests sometimes use outside labs.
A common saying among workers at Sinclair is that "we may not have the right to test on animals, but we do have the need."
Almost all research being done on breakthrough drugs to treat diseases like cancer, AIDS and Alzheimer's disease requires the use of lab animals, said Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, an industry group in Washington representing medical institutions and companies that use lab animals. The federal government also mandates animal tests for many products that are to be used on humans.
More than 1.1 million animals were used in research nationwide in 2002, according to the USDA. About 60 percent were rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, with the rest made up of everything from dogs, cats, primates to pigs.
The typical dog, cat or lamb at Sinclair is purchased from a top-grade, regulated breeder, Bouchard said. Most animals spend their entire lives in the lab, going on and off different experiments, year after year.
In animal research labs, the law of the land is the federal Animal Welfare Act. It sets up minimum standards of care and treatment. They include requiring that dogs have the chance to exercise and that all animals are given anesthesia or pain-relieving medication to minimize pain and distress.
USDA inspectors make surprise visits to the facilities each year. According to the USDA, Sinclair has no record of wrongdoing.
PETA sees its undercover actions as helping the government do its job, Sweetland said. The USDA visits for a day, while the animal rights group stays for months. "The USDA doesn't have the motivation we have," she said.
During the spy's tenure, there were several ongoing studies: Iams contracted with Sinclair for tests using mixed-breed dogs to evaluate the nutrition of dog food. Nestle Purina Petcare was running cat litter studies. Pet food studies also were conducted for Menu Foods, a Canadian private label pet food maker with a plant in Kansas. Sheep from Isto Technologies were involved in studies of a new lab technique to grow cartilage for humans.
The spy shot hours of videotape inside Sinclair. Every night, she'd go home to the apartment she rented in Columbia, watch the day's video and fill out a detailed report, which was e-mailed back to PETA headquarters.
The videotape - mostly of Iams, Menu Foods and Isto study-related animals - was whittled down to snippets of riveting scenes:
Bouchard admits there were problems with the cage design, which has a slotted floor to collect animal fecal samples. 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.
"The bottom line is the animals had excellent veterinary care," Bouchard said.
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. They allege that the spy stalled efforts to improve the life of the dogs in order to supply herself with dramatic video. "She came and all of a sudden, we have more problems than we have in five years," Bouchard said.
The spy denied such accusations.
Putting on the pressure:
The spy left her job on February 19 2003. She'd collected enough evidence. It was time to go public.
On March 25, PETA held a news conference in Dayton, Ohio, home to Iams, where the group introduced its new campaign. They handed out press packets with stickers reading "Iams kills cats & dogs in 'nutritional experiments.'"
While the link between Iams studies and dead animals appears weak - dogs may have died while on the study, but the link between their deaths and the research is not there - the PETA public relations machine made full use of it.
Iams said it had never before been targeted so heavily by PETA. And PETA hasn't relented. The dominant image on its Web site is the message "PETA to 'Pet' Food Industry: Lay Off the Animals," which links to more articles and pictures featuring purportedly mistreated animals.
There is growing concern within the pet food industry that this is just the start of a broader campaign, said Iams spokesman Bryan Brown.
"The signals are there that what they've done in the fast food industry," Brown said, referring to the changes at McDonald's, "they're planning for us."
The day after the news conference, a team from Iams visited Sinclair for a surprise inspection. They found 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, Brown said.
These items posed no serious health risks, Brown said, "but there were some gaps in following the Iams research policy."
Iams canceled its contract with Sinclair the next day.
PETA's tactics also were successful in getting Iams to conduct inspections at all of the company's contract research labs and to adopt tougher lab requirements. Iams said it found no problems at its other facilities.
Isto Technologies said in a statement that its work at Sinclair is completed, but the company "is reviewing the allegations made and takes this matter seriously."
But Purina Petcare spokesman Keith Schopp said the company feels unfairly swept up by PETA's allegations because officials have seen no evidence that animals in its studies were mistreated.
PETA research associate Peter Woods said Purina, which did not respond to PETA's letter alerting the company to problems at Sinclair, "should be very concerned about the people they do business with."
While PETA's tactics are applauded in some circles, companies and institutions have tried unsuccessfully for years to stop these undercover operations, said Trull with the Foundation for Biomedical Research. The issue is addressed at professional conferences, warnings and advice are provided, but three months later they hear about another spy, she said. Trull blamed researchers for thinking that it just couldn't happen to them.
PETA has intimidated researchers who use lab animals, even driven some from the field, she said. And it appears the animal rights activists are winning the public relations battle, too, despite the medical advances made possible by animal testing, she said.
"You've got to give them credit for being as effective as they've been," Trull conceded.
One factor in PETA's recent success is the group's increasing willingness to set aside its long-term goal of abolishing all animal testing in favor of improving the treatment of lab animals in the meantime.
"We hate it all," Sweetland said of animal testing, "but we're also very pragmatic."
What the future holds:
PETA recently fired off a 104-page complaint to the USDA, alleging dozens of instances of failure to provide adequate care for animals at Sinclair. The agency is reviewing the claims, a spokesman said.
Bouchard said he's considering legal action against PETA for its use of an undercover investigator. He pointed to a little-known state law that makes it illegal to access "an animal facility by false pretense for the purpose of performing acts not authorized by the facility."
This year, some legislators tried to add to the law by making it illegal to photograph "any aspect of an animal facility." That measure, derided by other lawmakers as the "puppy mill protection act," failed.
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's ordered new cat cages, increasing their size to 9 square feet.
But Bouchard said the one thing he's lost that can't be regained is trust. He is suspicious of everyone now. He is dreading when the time comes to hire a new employee, fearful that it will be another undercover investigator.
The spy said she is sorry if her former co-workers were hurt by her actions. But for her, the deceit was necessary. "How else is there to know what goes on behind closed doors?" she asked. Going undercover "is the only way."
Sweetland, who guided the young spy, said PETA will keep fighting.
"They will never succeed in keeping us out of the labs," Sweetland said. "We will always be doing this."
Now, the spy who made it inside Sinclair is back on the road, traveling somewhere in the South. She's looking to get behind closed doors once again.
She's ready for her next mission.
Moggies comment: Moggies fully supports PETA and its actions, we all know and have probably read or seen stories on the News or Newspapers about cruelty to animals in Laboratories, placing a spy in the midst of such Labs is a necesary evil and has my full support, how else are we the public privy to how these labs work and treat the animals they use. One day we will look back on these times and wonder how we put up with such cruel practises.
"I personally never buy any IAMS product and have not done for some years now." - Padraig