Fair Game? An Activist Group Targets Fundraising Claims to Pressure a University

 photo:  Katherine Welles/shutterstock

photo:  Katherine Welles/shutterstock

Guerilla activism—staging protests, fueling negative press and other disruptive activities—has long been a staple of charities like Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

PETA recently added another tool to its activist arsenal: questioning results of a university fundraising arm. It’s all part of PETA’s aggressive campaign to shut down a Texas A&M University laboratory. The lab uses dogs to study Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a particularly deadly variant of the disease, in hopes that the canine form of the disease will yield treatments for humans.

When PETA received a video from an anonymous source showing dogs in metal cages at the Texas A&M lab, it contacted corporate donors listed on the Texas A&M Foundation’s website to alert them about conditions at the lab—and ask them to reconsider their support.  (To be listed on the site, each company’s cumulative gifts were $100,000 or more, with some contributing up to $5 million.)  

Out of 100 corporate donors receiving letters from PETA, nine companies—including General Motors, Duke Energy and Verizon—said they had not given, or that the amount listed was greatly exaggerated. “This is unusual, a large number in our experience,” said Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of laboratory investigations who’s been with PETA for 28 years. “We do lots of work with corporations.”

After PETA started contacting its corporate donors, Texas A&M Foundation removed the donor listings from its site.  In addition to inflated donations, the animal-rights organization argued, Texas A&M issued a misleading statement claiming it did not breed dogs with muscular dystrophy when, in fact, it does.

“If we have been lied to about their dog work, what else are they lying about, and what should donors know about it?” said Guillermo about the contributions on the Texas A&M Foundation site. In November, PETA wrote to the Texas attorney general, requesting that it investigate the university’s fundraising claims.

Texas A&M Foundation, however, vigorously denies that any donations listed online were exaggerated. The online donor lists were removed, foundation officials said, because of the increasingly widespread view that such donor lists are not particularly useful in thanking or motivating donors—not because of erroneous fundraising totals.

“There are absolutely no irregularities or inconsistencies with the information we have on record for these companies,” said Lynn Schlemeyer, vice president of development support at Texas A&M Foundation, in a statement. “All companies have indeed contributed to Texas A&M, and the amounts are verified. Our financial data has been audited yearly since the beginning of the foundation, and we stand by those results.”

Unfortunately, at least for Texas A&M, the matter hasn’t ended there. Calling attention to allegedly inflated gifts is just one tactic the animal-rights charity is using against the university. PETA enlisted medical experts and people with muscular dystrophy to argue that the dog lab should be shuttered because no progress has been made in more than 35 years of research to find viable treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Texas A&M has also received petitions from hundreds of thousands of people demanding that the dog research end. PETA has also reached out to members of the university’s board.

Three PETA supporters were arrested after disrupting a graduation ceremony of Texas A&M’s engineering school. While a protester ran down the center aisle of the packed auditorium shouting about the dog lab, others unfurled a huge banner protesting its work from a balcony. Last month, PETA supporters were escorted off the field for demonstrating against the dog lab at a football game between Texas A&M and Wake Forest University. And the university alerted law enforcement when Dr. Joseph Kornegay, the veterinarian who runs the lab, received threatening telephone calls from PETA supporters. 

Whatever the eventual outcome of its campaign to shut down the Texas A&M dog lab, PETA is costing the university and its fundraising arm a lot of time and effort to battle its claims, including the argument that its dog research has yielded no results. One of the treatments tested by the lab is now scheduled for human clinical trials, which university officials cite as a huge accomplishment.

“Some people object to any use of animals in research regardless of how benign,” said Eleanor Green, dean of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine, in another statement. The Food and Drug Administration, she continued, “requires medications to be studied in at least two animal species before being tried in people. Without animal studies, there will be no new medications for people

The research dogs, Green continued, “are treated with great care and tenderness.” She strongly disagrees with PETA’s argument that they are being mistreated.

Green is not alone in opposing the PETA campaign to shut down the dog lab. “I used to be supporter of [PETA’s] until I witnessed some of their tactics,” said Amy B. Smith, the university’s senior vice president of communications. “As head communicator, I worry about researchers who become targets. Our research is valid, and we are excited about it.”