By Nicole Cobler
Originally published July 19, 2015
AUSTIN – Backed by a legal opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton, Texas A&M University is refusing to divulge information about dozens of animals used in lab testing.
At least 40 people have requested daily care logs and health records of cats and dogs used in research. But a recent attorney general’s opinion maintains veterinarian-patient privilege and allows the university to withhold the records, presenting a unique roadblock and a “terrible precedent” that other Texas universities might follow, animal rights activists said.
“Almost every other state that has a veterinarian-patient statute says it does not apply to those working with the state,” said Jeremy Beckham, head of the Beagle Freedom Project, a campaign attempting to acquire animal research records at universities across the country.
Without individual care logs, it is impossible to know how invasive procedures are, said Beckham, who added that he is considering a lawsuit to attempt to overturn the AG opinion.
“The fact that they’re being so secretive doesn’t bode well,” Beckham said.
A&M officials last week declined to comment on the testing.
The opinion noted that “a veterinarian may not violate the confidential relationship between the veterinarian and the veterinarian’s client” and there must be written authorization from the client before such information can be released.
Kate Fite, an attorney for the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, said the broadly written law allows veterinarians to withhold records unless they receive a client’s written consent.
Joseph Larsen, a Houston-based open records lawyer, said if Texas A&M owns the animals on which it performs the procedures, the chapter cited in the attorney general’s opinion that grants veterinarian-patient confidentiality should not apply.
“Obviously you do not owe any confidentiality to an animal,” he said. “Only a human can be promised confidentiality.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Texas A&M reported in 2009 that three-fourths of the tests done on 82 dogs produced some “pain or distress.” In 2014, the university reported using 428 dogs and 15 cats for research. Details on the levels of pain were not readily available on the USDA website.
Records obtained by Beagle Freedom Foundation give a glimpse at the testing that was approved by Texas A&M in 2014, which range from the “assessment of a new liver function test in dogs” to the “evaluation of a new medication for the treatment of chronic pancreatitis in dogs.”
The University of Texas at Austin, which houses a number of rodents, rabbits and primates, said in a statement that the school generally reviews whether attorney general’s opinions apply to records requests. The university confirmed that its biomedical research doesn’t use dogs or cats.
Caroline Davis was one of the campaign’s members who “virtually adopted” a cat that she named Max. Davis submitted an open records request to learn about how Max spends its days at Texas A&M and hopes to be able to monitor his treatment there.
“I wanted to give a name and face to these animals that are languishing in these labs,” she said.
‘Public has a right to know’
Davis, whose daughter attends Texas A&M and has used the veterinary clinic for one of her cats, was surprised when she received a response from the attorney general’s office denying her request for Max’s care logs.
“The public in general has a right to know the types of experiments being done at their school,” she said. “It’s a publicly funded school.”