08/19/2005 08:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Do Dastardly Deeds at the Taser Trials Spell Trouble on the Street?

In 2002, employees at Taser International shocked a conscious bull with an electric stun gun, and that got PETA’s attention. You can see a video clip of what they did to the bull on Taser’s Web site. Now, the rising toll of Taser-related human deaths has cast doubt on the safety of these weapons, and a Department of Justice-funded experiment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where 36 pigs are slated to be shocked in the heart, is in PETA’s crosshairs.

Although the UW-Madison study is carefully defined as “independent,” it is anything but that. An examination of documents related to the experiment reveals a tainted and compromised half-million-dollar, taxpayer-funded boondoggle. We are all footing the bill for this nasty bit of business, yet it’s supposed to be—like more and more government business these days—a secret.

UW-Madison biomedical engineer John Webster is the experimenter wallowing in grant money for some pretty awful experiments on pigs. In a November 2004 e-mail (obtained through the state’s open records law) with the subject line “Stun Gun Death,” Webster writes, “Because of the sensitivity of the Department of Justice, they prefer that we do not issue any publicity related to the grant. So it would help my relations with them if we just cool it on publicity.” Why the secrecy?

When PETA revealed conflicts of interest involving the project—including Webster’s cozy connection with Taser International—one of Webster’s paid consultants, Robert Stratbucker, disappeared from the project. Stratbucker is employed as Taser’s medical director but failed to include that critical piece of information in his curriculum vitae, and Webster failed to mention it in his grant application to the government. This is not the first time that Stratbucker’s failure to disclose his affiliation with Taser has gotten him in trouble—his expert testimony was thrown out of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case when he did something similar.

A deposition from one of the 94 lawsuits filed against Taser revealed that top Taser officials shocked live pigs in a home garage. This is illegal—a violation of the federal Animal Welfare Act. PETA has requested a formal investigation.

Webster now advertises himself as an expert witness/consultant in Taser safety and is busy telling newspapers that “Tasers are safe!” In an e-mail, he solicits advice, saying, “If you have suggestions for how I should change my mantra (which is designed to prevent the banning of Tasers), please inform me.” However, in another e-mail that PETA obtained, Webster proposed a statement for UW-Madison to give to the media— on the heels of a USA Today story titled “Fairness in Taser Study in Question”—to help the university explain why Stratbucker and Wayne McDaniel, two Taser-connected animal experimenters, were included on his grant application for the “independent” study. Webster suggested that UW-Madison try this response: “When John Webster applied for the grant to study Tasers, he had little previous experience studying Tasers. To improve the chances of funding, he listed four advisors who had previous experience related to testing Tasers.”

So, depending on the moment, Webster describes himself as a Taser expert, a person who needs Taser consultants to secure federal funding, and someone with practically no experience studying Tasers. Not terribly comforting.

UW-Madison and the pigs have another problem.

In an e-mail to Webster, a colleague (animal experimenter James Will) refers to having to “sort out the anesthesia problem” before embarking on another pig experiment. This must be unsettling to Eric Sandgren, chair of the All Campus Animal Care and Use Committee, whose review committee, he said, was “won over” by the fact that the pigs are properly anesthetized.

PETA has requested an investigation into the “anesthesia problem,” but it doesn’t bode well for the pigs. These large, intelligent, and social animals are uncomfortable in laboratories under even the best of circumstances. They don’t like being confined to cement and metal cells as they await their demise; they don’t like being handled; and they get easily distressed and fearful when “something’s up.”

You can visit PETA’s Web site for details on this unfolding story.

There are compelling arguments against experiments such as this—they are cruel and redundant. It is often impossible to extrapolate results from animals to humans. Sometimes it’s inconvenient for businesses to admit that when animals die, the weapon being used on them might also kill people. What is also painfully obvious here is the fact that while these weapons are now in widespread use, the only studies that should be funded are those involving the examination of human data.