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As we just heard, more than 70 video surveillance cameras monitor the medical school complex where Annie Le's body was found. That degree of monitoring is increasingly a regular fixture at animal research labs — in part because of threats from animal rights activists.
NPR's Cheryl Corley explains.
CHERYL CORLEY: There are more than a thousand research facilities in the United States registered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And many are tied to universities. Divulging information about their security plans is not on the top of their list, and most that NPR contacted declined to do so.
Frankie Trull, the president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research in Washington, D.C., says research labs have been beefing up their security systems ever since the 1980s, when animal rights activists conducted a rash of break-ins.
Ms. FRANKIE TRULL (Founder and President, Foundation for Biomedical Research) So if someone from off the sidewalk wanted to walk through a lab, I would suggest that would be very difficult to do in the vast majority of university research facilities around the country.
CORLEY: For many universities with research facilities, it's been a balancing act - determining how much to spend on security versus say the campus library or extracurricular activities. But, Richard Bianco, the head of experimental surgery at the University of Minnesota, says it's a challenge research facilities have had to address. His school began to do so a decade ago after animal rights activists came on campus.
Professor RICHARD BIANCO (Head, Experimental Surgery, University of Minnesota) They let our animals go in a northern suburb of Minneapolis in April, which either the eagles and raptors got them or the cold got them. They killed our animals. But in addition, many of our students had their PhD thesis based on the data for some of their learning experiments of psychology. These animals were highly trained — pigeons, for instance — and they had to start all over with that. In addition, they destroyed cell cultures where we were growing cells to treat cancer patients and that was destroyed and was not recoverable.
CORLEY: The university put cameras in hallways and common areas, required key cards for access into certain lab rooms and facilities and put up panic alarms — buttons that could be pressed to alert police to come to the area. Jack Hessler is the co-editor of the document on planning and designing research facilities — a project of the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine. He says beyond setting up cameras, and card swipes, and key-card controls, some facilities use biometrics like a handprint or retina identification in addition to an ID card.
Mr. JACK HESSLER (American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine) Even the dean and the - on down the line of people don't have access to it if they're not doing animal research inside the facility, non-approved to do the research, they don't get in.
CORLEY: Frankie Trull with the Foundation for Biomedical Research says protecting employees is paramount, but the animals are also important. Take mice and rats for instance, many of them are genetically modified. And it can take a great deal of time, as well as money to get the particulars in place that researchers are trying to create.
Ms. TRULL: And they need to be in special environments. And, you know, a lot of them are receiving treatments that ultimately will translate into human medicine. So when they're stolen, it can ruin years of a research project.
CORLEY: One of the last major break-ins at a university research facility occurred at the University of Iowa five years ago, when the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for removing hundreds of animals — mostly mice and rats from research labs. They also smashed computers and destroyed research documents. At the time, the group claimed it bypassed many of the security measures. Trull and others agree that no security system is foolproof and there's always the risk of an inside job. The key to the surveillance systems is to make sure someone is always monitoring what's being recorded by the cameras.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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