“That’s not exactly the Sunday comics,” says the 52-year-old from Milford, who has a degree in Animal Health Technology from the University of Cincinnati, and another in Theology from Xavier University.
After poring through medical histories and U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, Mr. Budkie, his wife Karen Budkie, 52, and a small investigative team comprising the nonprofit Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN) aim their stones at several Goliaths of American industry.
Their goals: Hold accountable the defense, pharmaceutical and medical industries for their violations of the Animal Welfare Act. And let the public know what happens in animal labs.
In October SAEN unearthed records showing that a dozen musk oxen had died of starvation at a University of Alaska research facility. And last month the group released a list of the 20 U.S. research facilities that subject the greatest number of animals to painful experiments without anesthesia. In the middle of this list is Battelle Memorial Institute, a Columbus-based nonprofit company that does contract work for the Department of Defense (DOD), among others.
“One of the most prominent myths out there about animal experimentation,” says Mr. Budkie, “is that because the labs are regulated by the USDA, everything has to be OK inside them.”
According to a DOD database, in 2008 the U.S. Army paid Battelle a combined $3.3 million to conduct vaccine studies that infected rabbits, mice and rhesus monkeys with the bioweapon anthrax. These public reports don’t specify how many animals were used for each study, nor whether pain relief was included. But according to USDA Animal Use Reports, in 2010 Battelle used 2,068 animals in painful experiments without any pain relief — one third of all the animals it reported using.
Among those animals were 1,140 guinea pigs, 284 non-human primates and six dogs.
(These numbers don’t include mice, rats or birds, which are excluded from the Animal Welfare Act’s definition of “animal,” and thus from its protections.)
Battelle declined to explain why it might conduct an experiment without anesthesia.
Mr. Budkie remembers one particular dog in a UC lab who helped shape his career. As an Animal Health Tech student hoping to work for a private veterinarian, he says he learned to perform many of the procedures that are a part of animal experimentation.
But in the process he found that his conscience opposed them. Then a black-and-white terrier arrived at his lab who seemed like “a carbon copy” of a shy terrier named Scruffy whom he and Ms. Budkie had adopted.
“Same shy and retiring mannerisms, same markings, the same type of fur,” he says. He befriended this new dog, played with him and brought him treats during his week of quarantine.
“Then one day I went down to see him and he was gone,” Mr. Budkie says. “And he never came back.”
Seeing a dog so much like his own companion vanish into a life of lab experiments made him sick.
“That really drove home the fact that there was no difference,” he says. “(Lab animals) felt pain, they would develop connections with people, they would interact with you ... and yet there were things that happened to them, that if you did them to an animal in your home, you would be arrested. But because it happened inside a research facility it was OK.”
Ms. Budkie, meanwhile, had grown up in a family that rescued injured wildlife, and as a St. Ursula High School student she had convinced a biology teacher to spare a group of guinea pigs from classroom dissection.
The couple met at the Lighthouse, a disco in Clifton, and the day after their wedding they found a sick puppy abandoned on the side of a Kentucky road. Caring for this puppy led them to volunteer their time at no-kill dog shelters, and after attending a talk by Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals president Harold Dates, the couple became increasingly involved in animal advocacy.
For the next decade they saved money and raised a daughter, and in 1996 they founded SAEN, which was a volunteer operation for five years. SAEN is now funded by donations and the occasional grant. Earlier this year it received a gift of $10,000 from Supreme Master Ching Hai, the international religious leader behind Cincinnati’s vegan café in Pleasant Ridge, The Loving Hut.
Mr. Budkie describes a few stages he has traversed as an activist — from his student days to a period of emotional detachment, to a time when reading the details of medical records made him empathize painfully with animals he would never meet. To clear his mind of the images he deals with — monkeys with bolts implanted in their skulls, for example — he spends his Saturdays teaching chess to gifted kids.
“It’s something that helps to keep me, if you’ll excuse the pun, sane,” he says.
Both he and Ms. Budkie also say their Christian faith is a source of strength. But when pressed further to explain how he handles reading about pain, fear and death, day after day, his steady voice becomes blocked by emotion. He describes two images seared into his memory, from a study of drug addiction using monkeys: One animal lay immobile on the floor of his cage for days on end, while another one never stopped fighting and tearing at his restraint jacket.
“No matter what they did, this monkey was still trying to be a monkey ... and I guess the way I look at it, is that if he can keep fighting in there, so can I.”
Mr. and Ms. Budkie disparage animal research not only as cruel but as antiquated and fraudulent. They argue that its lessons cannot be safely applied to humans, that the stress of captive animals pollutes results and that research groups invent frivolous animal studies in order to rake in grants and justify their existence.
It is true that less-than-noble interests underlie some studies, and that competitive secrecy in academia causes experiments to be duplicated which could be shared. But it is also true that some animal experiments have improved human health. Monkeys died to produce our polio vaccine, sheep were killed for our current anthrax vaccine and transplanted pig valves have enabled diseased human hearts to continue beating.
Meanwhile, scholars from the field of Human-Animal Studies are asking not just whether animal testing is justified but also how vivisectors justify and adjust to their own actions. For many years, the sociologist Arnold Arluke has examined how young scientists and students are taught to change their ways of seeing, to transform animals into “objects that do not suffer.”
Tereza Vandrovcova, a sociology Ph.D. student at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, has found that vivisectors tend to cope with feelings of guilt by refusing to look at their subjects as pets and by mentally separating lab animals and their “destiny” from other animals.
A favorite quote by Patrick Henry hangs over Mr. Budkie’s desk, revealing a different view of destiny:
“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me — give me liberty, or give me death!” ©
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