Dick Bianco has a panic button under his desk.
As head of Experimental Surgical Services at the University of Minnesota, he’s been the focus of animal rights activists’ rage.
Bianco estimated that up to 300 sheep are “sacrificed” each year as part of his experiments in heart valve research. Pathology staff members kill the sheep with an overdose injection of a drug similar to what a veterinarian would use to euthanize a pet.
Bianco speaks out in support of animal experimentation and accepts his status as a public figure of the biomedical research industry. But he sees it differently when animal rights groups try to influence students.
“My solution is to bring the students to us,” he said. He invites high school students to his lab for field trips to “counteract” PETA’s message that using animals for research is wrong.
Bianco tests heart valves in animals before the valves go on to human trials. He proactively promotes research like this, which has drawn threats in the past.
Activist Camille Marino, out of Florida, posted a threat against Bianco on her website negotioationisover.net in 2009.
“We should not be surprised when the unconscionable violence inflicted upon animals is justifiably visited upon their tormentors,” she wrote.
Animal rights organizations have demonstrated at the University in the past. In 1999, the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for vandalizing research facilities and stealing more than 100 animals.
Frustrated with PETA’s access to high schools, Bianco “invited himself” to speak at a high school science teachers’ conference about a decade ago.
“Look it,” he remembers saying from the podium. “You’re letting PETA into your schools — you’re not letting us into your schools. We don’t want to brainwash your kids. What we want to do is expose them to a real medical research laboratory.”
Immediately after his talk, teachers approached Bianco to get information on how to make the tours happen.
Since that day, 10,000 students have toured Bianco’s Experimental Surgical Services lab, he estimated.
“Certainly my agenda is [fighting] the anti-science movement of the animal rights,” Bianco said. “But it also is, we’re going to have a problem in science — young kids aren’t interested in it.”
Surgeons for a day
The hands moved gracefully, stringing a needle holder into one side of the flesh and threading it out the other. Steadily, they moved down the wound, sewing it up cleanly.
These weren’t first-class surgeons. They were high schoolers, only doctors from wrists to finger tips. They wore jeans, sweatshirts and vests. But their hands were in rubber surgical gloves, and they gracefully stitched up the wounds on makeshift patients — pig limbs.
Meanwhile, Bianco was next door implanting a synthetic valve into a sheep. There was more blood in that room, and some students looked away as they walked by.
In their room, the high schoolers followed along as pre-vet junior and lab employee Amanda compared operating the tools to learning how to use chopsticks and told the students to open up a plastic package “like string cheese.”
This was one station on Blaine High School’s visit to Experimental Surgical Services last week. Some students were queasy — one fainted after seeing a heart and lung out on a table — but the consensus was that the lab made for a pretty cool field trip.
At another station, students used an “echo” machine to see their friend’s heart and lungs.
“Have you ever seen your heart?” asked science teacher Tim Riordan, who did the same tour as a high schooler. “This is a first, man. Let’s do it.”
The other six students in the surgery room were mesmerized by the sight and sound of their friend’s insides on the ultrasound.
The next part of the tour was both cute and controversial.
Five sheep sat in grim kennels in a room that smelled like a farm. Bianco asked the Minnesota Daily not to identify the location of the lab for security reasons.
The sheep were brought to the lab either for surgery to implant a heart valve or to get an echo test.
The sheep “absolutely love” Fig Newtons, said tour guide and pre-med sophomore Raquel. Except for Fonzie, a past favorite, lab workers generally don’t name the sheep, which are eventually “sacrificed” so researchers can examine their organs.
“It’s kinda hard to name them and get attached,” Raquel said.
A ‘gateway issue’
At the University, Research Animal Resources is devoted to granting and monitoring the use of animals. Anyone who comes into contact with an animal during a project has some degree of training, said Cyd Gillett, director of RAR.
Once a day, RAR staff members check on every animal — even the mice — in research labs across campus.
The most common infractions RAR catches are procedural, like incomplete or overdue paperwork, rather than instances of actual animal abuse, Gillett said.
But those precautions don’t make animal research OK for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
It’s “irrelevant” that new medical technology can come out of the research, said Justin Goodman, director of lab investigations at PETA.
“The ends don’t always justify the means. And animals are like us in all the ways that matter,” he said. “They feel fear, and they feel pain, and that fear and pain should matter to us too.”
The group campaigns in the classroom by giving software and computers for digital dissections to schools that agree not to dissect real animals.
The group has enabled 75,000 students to use virtual alternatives to dissections, Goodman said. He said the group sees high school dissections as a “gateway issue.”
Bianco said using computers in high school is not a big deal — it’s a basic enough level of surgery. But when it comes to training students to be actual surgeons, real patients are necessary.
Each side of the animal experimentation argument says the other doesn’t tell the whole story.
Goodman said biomedical researchers “do a lot of hand-waving” about what happens to animals. Bianco said PETA misinforms high school students about what researchers like him do.
“They’re getting the wrong message at school,” he said. “I think that we need to counter that, like with most things, with some facts.”
Riordan said one of his high school students on a previous tour was a PETA member. She was “very receptive,” Riordan said, but didn’t change her stance on animals in research.
“[The tour is] to simply give [students] experiences so that they can at least have something to point to as far as why they believe what they believe,” Riordan said.
Biomedical research faces a two-part problem, said Paul McKellips, executive vice president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. The rise of the animal rights movement has collided with scientists who are hesitant to talk about their work.
McKellips said Bianco’s idea to bring kids into the lab is an example of what the research community needs more of.
“Scientists typically want to let the science speak for itself,” he said. “Accordingly, as the animal rights movement picked up steam, the scientific community sort of went silent.”
Goodman, from PETA, said Bianco is fighting a losing battle, because public support for animals in research is waning.
“It’s very telling that Mr. Bianco goes to such great lengths to propagandize animal experimentation,” Goodman said.
One of Bianco’s public relations moves led Negotiation Is Over’s Marino to post the threat on her website in 2009.
Bianco had made himself more visible by joining a national campaign to increase support for animal use in research.
The posting led to increased security patrols for Bianco, who said he has regular contact with the FBI. He got his panic button installed after the Animal Liberation Front break-in.
Bianco’s goal is to ensure kids aren’t turned off from science by extreme acts like that, or even just by materials PETA distributes in schools.
Rachel Rystedt, 16, said she was indifferent about animals in research before touring the lab last week.
“I didn’t know really how I felt about it until I actually saw it,” she said. “I think I’m OK with it, just [with] how I saw the animals were being kept.”
Sixteen-year-old Lauren Anderson thought the tour was “pretty awesome.” She already was interested in biomedical engineering, she said, “but then this kind of just made me want to do it even more.”
That’s success for Bianco.
The most extreme acts of the animal rights groups like Negotiation is Over include harassing students that are going into the animal research field.
The group, based in Florida, offers $100 to anyone who identifies University of Florida students involved in animal research. NIO asks for the student’s name, picture, address and phone number.
Bianco calls it “atrocious.”
One targeted student eventually caved to threats and left her job at a research facility.
“That’s the first one,” McKellips said. “But if that’s the tip of the iceberg, if that’s … what’s going to happen, then we’re going to be in trouble.”