SALT LAKE CITY -- The death of a stray dog whose heart was removed by University of Utah researchers conducting cardiology tests has spurred a renewed call from animal rights groups to stop the practice of selling some shelter animals for research nationwide.
Thirty-six states, including Utah, allow stray dogs and cats to be sold to research facilities if they are scheduled for euthanasia at animal shelters.
But animal activists say the shelters should be safe havens, and fear that if the practice continues, people may stop bringing in their unwanted pets.
"We do a lot of work in communities to garner trust in their shelters," Kathleen Conlee, of the Humane Society of the United States, said Monday. "If, for whatever reason, people are not able to take care of their cat or dog anymore, we don't want people to be fearful of taking their animals to a shelter."
The Humane Society says just 14 states, including California, Maine, Maryland and Hawaii, prohibit the sale of strays for research.
Rose Bentley, board president at Salt Lake City's Utah Animal Adoption Center, a no-kill facility, said she was shocked to learn that Sunny, a shy female pit bull once housed there, had been euthanized by the University of Utah last June.
She said the dog had a microchip that showed it was owned by the center, even though the facility had already adopted out the dog to a new owner. Somehow, the animal later ended up a stray again at the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter and was slated to be euthanized, but was instead sold to the university for lab tests. The dog then had her heart removed and was put down.
Bentley and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a complaint with the state Health Department, claiming the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter never contacted the Utah Animal Adoption Center -- as required under state law -- before selling the dog to the school for $50.
"Think about it, what if this was your dog or cat ... if this happened to you. What would you do?" Bentley said. "I just want ensure that this never happens again."
The Utah Department of Health is now investigating the complaint but said Monday the agency likely wouldn't sanction the university and had no authority over the shelter.
"State laws leave it up to the shelter to contact the owner and it is not the responsibility of the university," said health department spokesman Tom Hudacho. "We've contacted the shelter, but they are not under our jurisdiction and required to answer to us."
The University of Utah ended its contract last month with the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter and now buys cats and dogs from specialized breeders -- about $2,000 for a dog and $1,000 for a cat. The school said it stopped using stray animals in its tests because of protests against the shelter.
Jack Taylor, director of the university's Department of Comparative Research, said Monday they only accepted Sunny after receiving confirmation from the animal shelter that the owner had been contacted and relinquished their rights. Repeated telephone calls and an email to the director of the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter were not returned on Monday.
"Heart bypass surgery -- one of the most common surgeries today -- was first made possible with surgery experiments on dogs," Taylor said. "The bulk of what we know in human medicine today was derived from research in animals and we learn enough from them to engage in clinical trials on humans. You cannot argue what kind of value comes from that research."
Nearly 100,000 cats and dogs provided by breeders and shelters were housed and used in research labs in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In some states, like Wisconsin, research institutions can buy a dog from a shelter for as little as $1 for experiments, according to PETA.