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Sheep at Travis Air Force Base, California, May 6, 2022. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is calling on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to force the Navy to stop conducting painful and often lethal decompression sickness tests on sheep. 

Sheep at Travis Air Force Base, California, May 6, 2022. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is calling on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to force the Navy to stop conducting painful and often lethal decompression sickness tests on sheep.  (Heide Couch/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — A leading animal rights group is calling on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to force the Navy to stop conducting painful and often lethal decompression sickness tests on sheep. 

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals will send a letter this week urging Austin to end the Navy’s conduct and financial support of “horrific” decompression sickness and oxygen toxicity tests on animals, according to PETA’s vice president of international laboratory methods, Shalin Gala. 

The tests aim to develop ways to combat the sickness, commonly known as “the bends.” It occurs when nitrogen gas bubbles form in the blood, muscles and organs, including the brain, as bodies decompress from highly pressurized environments, such as underwater.

Decompression sickness tests involving Navy scientists took place at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md; the Naval Medical Center San Diego; and the Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring, Md., according to a 2021 report published in the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Journal. 

“Sheep were locked in high-pressure chambers and exposed to significant atmospheric pressure equivalent to what a diver would experience at 257 feet below sea level — and left in that state for 31 minutes,” PETA said of the tests. “The animals were then forced to decompress, which caused them to endure severe [decompress illness.]” 

As part of the process, the sheep endured “crippling joint pains, bloating treated by stomach puncture and cardiovascular collapse or spinal cord injury, causing distress or paralysis and frequently resulting in death,” according to the letter, which cited the 2021 report. 

“In this experiment, the sheep were then injected with an experimental oxygen-carrying substance that failed to reduce mortality,” Gala said. “Following all of these procedures, the sheep were then killed and dissected.” 

The Navy previously funded similar testing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison but stopped in 2010 after PETA and local animal-rights group Alliance for Animals petitioned for the practice to end, arguing it violated state law. 

“However, after UW–Madison subsequently persuaded the state legislature to exempt experimenters from state cruelty-to-animals statutes … it appears that the Navy has resumed conducting and funding such experiments on animals,” PETA said in its letter. 

Gala said the tests, which have been abandoned by the British and French navies, are less accurate than other test models that do not involve animals, such as using modern technology to study decompress sickness based on human tissue and data from divers. 

“The Naval Medical Research Center has actually publicly admitted that these experiments do not accurately translate to humans,” he said. “There’s a whole slew of non-animal methods that are much more human-relevant and can actually advance human medicine rather than relying on non-human animals.” 

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.

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