The UW-Madison has destroyed videotapes of primate experiments long sought by animal rights activists, saying the tapes were damaged in an accident early last year. But these records were destroyed more than a year after that accident, and just two months after the university rejected a request for them on unrelated policy grounds.
A record provided by the UW shows that 60 boxes of videotapes were shredded on Feb. 13, 2006. Among them were tapes produced by UW researchers including Ruth Benca and Ned Kalin and described in a paper published in the journal Brain Research in 2000. The paper says rhesus monkeys were videotaped while restrained in an experiment regarding the effects of brain lesions on sleep patterns.
Activists have made several attempts to obtain these tapes, dating back to 2002. In April 2005, Madison resident Jeremy Beckham requested them under the state's open records law. When the UW did not release the tapes or provide a definitive response, attorney Leslie Hamilton of Animal Law Associates of Wisconsin asked the state Justice Department to prosecute; the office declined, saying it represented the UW on other legal matters. Shortly thereafter, in a letter dated Dec. 13, 2005, senior UW legal counsel John Dowling formally denied Beckham's request.
Dowling said the videotapes did not constitute a record but were rather "primary data from the ongoing investigations of university researchers." He also said "the public interest in nondisclosure outweighs the interest in disclosure" because of the tapes' value as primary data.
"It is extremely important to that research that the data remain under the control of the researchers, or otherwise it would be susceptible to misappropriation and/or misinterpretation," Dowling wrote. No mention is made of any damage to these tapes.
On May 15, 2006, Isthmus made a fresh request for these tapes, with an eye to perhaps testing the law regarding their (non)availability. In mid-June, Dowling told the paper that, besides the public-policy concerns, there was some question as to whether the tapes still existed: "They may have been damaged in a plumbing accident."
This was confirmed in a letter from Dowling dated July 6, 2006: "The videotapes and photographs in question were damaged, along with other data, when a steam valve broke on 1/18/05 releasing water and steam into the storage area. After the required time to keep these data had elapsed, they were destroyed."
Isthmus followed up with a request for records regarding the steam-valve accident. The UW, in response, has released several documents, including a statement from an unnamed primate lab building manager dated July 13, 2005, six months after the purported accident. It says large amounts of high-pressure steam were released into a storage area, causing "considerable damage." (For referenced records, see Document Feed at TheDailyPage.com.)
But the UW provided no information as to what was damaged, or how badly. "I don't know," says Dowling, when asked if the damage made it impossible to view the tapes. He also doesn't know what his own letter means in saying the tapes were destroyed "after the required time." He assumes this language, provided by others, refers to some records-retention schedule.
Beckham, in his April 2005 request, noted that the open records law prohibits the destruction of a requested record until at least 60 days after access is denied. The tapes were shredded 62 days after Dowling's denial.