Dr. Oz Killed Puppies FOR SCIENCE?

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Important breaking news from a week or two ago: DR OZ IS A PUPPY KILLER. Dr. Mehmet Oz, a shambling golem formed from piles of hundred dollar bills Oprah found in her couch cushions, was already not my favorite person considering that he got rich selling snake oil on TV, is in favor of more people dying of COVID, and is now a carpetbagging Republican US Senate candidate bravely crossing the Delaware to take away Pennsylvanians’ right to get an abortion.

And as a normal human being, I love non-human animals more than other human beings, so the I was driven to even greater levels of loathing upon hearing the news that Dr. Oz was involved in mass puppy murder. I mean, if you tell me “Dr. Oz killed some puppies” I am first of all NOT going to be surprised and second of all you don’t need to give me any context. Yes, of course he did, say no more.

But then I DID see the context and I was filled with annoyance, because the context makes things more complicated and annoying: “Dr. Oz’s Scientific Experiments Killed Over 300 Dogs, Entire Litter of Puppies,” reported Jezebel last week. Oh yeah, he’s a “scientist,” sort of. And we’ve seen this kind of accusation before, and it’s not always the slam dunk criticism you think it is. Like, yes, I love animals, I love dogs, I love puppies, and I will say that sometimes, unfortunately, scientists have to kill dogs, and yes, sometimes it is absolutely worth it.

I talked about this earlier this year in relation to another person I hate: Elon Musk. Musk’s brain implant start-up, Neuralink, was accused of killing monkeys to test devices that could one day help paralyzed people regain the use of their limbs. In my opinion, in theory that is an end goal that is probably worth sacrificing non-human animals. HOWEVER, the documents released by Neuralink’s partner, UC Davis, revealed that the primates were likely abused in ways that were not required by the research, and basically treated very cruelly.

So it’s important that before any research is conducted on living beings, researchers and oversight committees spend a significant amount of time and energy determining whether the end goal will be worth it, and how they can conduct this research with as little negative impact on the animal as possible. Doing that doesn’t only minimize harm to the animal but it also goes a long way towards protecting animal research, because every time horrible conditions are revealed in a laboratory, it makes the public that much more skeptical of labs that are doing good work.

“Scientists kill puppies” was even used just last year by the rightwing propaganda machine to turn the public against Dr. Anthony Fauci: in October of 2021, a group called White Coat Waste Project published an expose that even came readymade with its own hashtag: #BeagleGate. While they have no examples of Fauci himself overseeing any animal experiments, they do claim that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Fauci directs, gave FUNDING to studies that then experimented on animals, in ways they describe as cruel and unnecessary. The Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, has an annual budget of about $6 billion, so it’s safe to say that they fund quite a number of studies. However, as their director, the buck would stop with Fauci if the institute has shown negligence in spending even a tiny fraction of their budget funding studies that they should have known would be unethical.

The White Coat Waste Project specifically called out three unethical studies that the NIAID funded: one of them, a study in Tunisia in which dogs were locked in cages with sand flies, was not actually funded by NIAID, as confirmed by the institute and the journal where the study was published.

The other two studies WERE funded by NIAID and DID involve dogs, but White Coat Waste Project leaves out some pertinent details. For instance, one was a University of Georgia study that they describe as “healthy beagles are given an experimental drug and then intentionally infested with flies that carry a disease-causing parasite that affects humans.” They don’t mention that the parasite in question, lymphatic filariasis, affects tens of millions of people each year with “painful and profoundly disfiguring” symptoms, and the best known prevention currently is preventive chemotherapy, which hundreds of millions of people go through each year. A safe and effective vaccine would be literally life-changing to people in tropical places who are at risk. Oh, and it also affects dogs, which is why this research was done on dogs, and the results may help contribute to a vaccine FOR DOGS.

The group described another study as “cruel and unnecessary drug toxicity tests on dogs and other animals that cost taxpayers $1.68 million,” while failing to mention that the drug in question was a cutting edge antiretroviral to treat HIV/AIDS, and the FDA required they be tested on non-rodent animals in pursuit of approval, with dogs being the recommended animal. It was also required that the dogs be euthanized after the study so that the researchers could be sure the drugs caused no damage to the internal organs.

Were these studies “worth it”? That’s left up to the individual: for some people, no animal’s life is worth less than any number of human lives. But for people living with – or dying from – diseases like HIV and lymphatic filariasis, the answer may be “yes absolutely it’s worth it.” Did the animals they used in these studies suffer more than strictly necessary? I can’t answer that. Unfortunately I have to rely up on the researchers involved, the universities and institutes overseeing them, and the government and nonprofit agencies like the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care that make sure that these studies adhere to the laws we have on animal welfare.

I say “unfortunately” because we know that we can NOT always trust this system. This is the same system that allowed Elon Musk’s startup to get away with applying Krazy Glue to the exposed neurons of monkeys, essentially melting their brains. And it’s the same system where Dr. Oz is now under fire for “killing puppies.”

On that note, let’s go over the facts in this case. By the way, you will not find the White Coat Waste Project discussing anything about this – it seems as though they only care about allegations of animal abuse when they’re about someone who is considered liberal.

But anyway, unlike Dr. Fauci, who ran a billion dollar institute that gave funding to researchers who eventually used dogs in their research, Dr. Mehmet Oz was actually the principal investigator at Columbia University’s Institute of Comparative Medicine, where he listed as an author on at least 75 studies. According to Jezebel, who dropped the expose, his “team conducted experiments on at least 1,027 live animal subjects that included dogs, pigs, calves, rabbits, and small rodents. Thirty-four of these experiments resulted in the deaths of at least 329 dogs, while two of his experiments killed 31 pigs, and 38 experiments killed 661 rabbits and rodents.”

As a lede, that’s honestly not shocking or upsetting. That’s just research, especially medical research in which scientists are required to use and then euthanize animals to ensure safety and efficacy in humans. And much as Fauci didn’t euthanize dogs for the research his institute funded, as Principal Investigator Oz most likely had little input over day-to-day operations in the labs. But as Fauci is ultimately responsible for making sure his institution isn’t funding unethical research, Oz was ultimately responsible for making sure his direct reports weren’t, say, euthanizing puppies with expired drugs and then throwing them in a dumpster with their still-living littermates. Yeeeeeah and that’s what a postdoctoral veterinary fellow at Columbia alleged 20 years ago.

Catherine Dell’Orto said she witnessed rampant abuse of research dogs in Oz’s labs at Columbia to the point that she says she raised the issue internally with Columbia and also with the USDA, neither of whom reacted. So, in 2002 she went to PETA, the unfortunately batshit animal rights group, who, if nothing else, are good at getting publicity. They were annoying enough that in 2004, Columbia conducted an internal investigation and then they and the USDA agreed to settle out of court for a mere $2,000, as they did find evidence for some of Dell’Orto’s claims, like:

“Pups whelped from a dog being used in a research study were euthanised with outdated euthanasia solution; drug use logs indicate the pups were not properly sedated at the time as claimed by person administering euthanasia.”

Oz, for his part, claims he had no idea there was any issue with animal welfare until after the experiments were over, which is understandable as he was a working surgeon at the time who was also probably desperately trying to get as famous as possible. Which is just one of many reasons why he probably should not have been the director of a major university research facility. Columbia stuck by him through the animal abuse allegations but I guess they finally had enough and quietly cut ties with him in May of this year.

So! Did Dr. Oz personally murder puppies while cackling and singing about his new slippers? No. Were research animals euthanized under what was supposed to be his watch at Columbia? Absolutely. Were those animals abused, or killed unnecessarily? I don’t know: I find Dell’Ortro’s accusations to be credible as she appears to have taken copious notes during her time at Columbia and the university themselves found evidence for some of her claims. And finally, was Dr. Oz responsible for any ethics violations? Absolutely, yes. Running an institute isn’t just about the fame and the money, but about the responsibility, and even if he never stepped foot in his lab, that’s still ultimately his problem to deal with.

That said, there are way bigger problems with Dr. Oz that we already know are true with 100% confidence because he has said them out loud: he downplayed COVID-19 and wanted businesses and schools to reopen before mitigation efforts could be put in place. He has said that he opposes abortion except in extreme circumstances. He has made a career selling snake oil to credulous Americans, and there’s absolutely no reason to expect him to stop once he’s elected to the Senate. Please vote in this election, and if you are in Pennsylvania please, please, PLEASE send Dr. Oz back to one of his mansions in New Jersey.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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