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UW destroys primate tapes
Follow the paper trail on coveted records

It's no secret that research involving primates at the UW-Madison is highly controversial. That's due in part to the fact that it's (slightly) easier for people in Wisconsin to get information on what research is being done here than in some other places. In fact, in recent years, activists opposed to animal research have tried to use the state's open records law to force the release of videotapes of experiments involving primates. One such battle has concerned videotapes of an experiments described in a paper published in 2000.The UW-Madison has denied requests for these tapes in the past. More recently, it gave a different answer, which is recounted in an article in the Aug. 11 issue of Isthmus.

  • The Isthmus article by Bill Lueders
  • Documents regarding Jeremy Beckham's records request
  • Isthmus' records request of May 2006 and the UW's response
  • Records regarding the destruction of the videotapes

    1. The Isthmus article

    Primate tapes get trashed
    Accident cited in decision to destroy coveted research records

    By Bill Lueders

    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 this 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 where 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

    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.

    2. Documents regarding Jeremy Beckham's records request

    CLICK HERE [pdf]

    3. Isthmus' records request of May 2006 and the UW's response

    CLICK HERE [pdf]

    4. Records regarding the destruction of the videotapes

    CLICK HERE [pdf]

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