A campaign over animal rights may be putting the health of premature babies at risk.

The controversial animal rights group PETA recently released a statement claiming they had, through negotiations, convinced Primary Children's Medical Center to drop a training program using live cats. But on Tuesday, Primary Children's said that is not true.

For years, Primary Children's has used live cats once a year during a highly specialized training to teach medical professionals how to put a tube down the throat of a 2-pound premature baby, said Bonnie Midget of Primary Children's Medical Center.

PETA claimed to have put an end to the training.

"In the wake of an intense PETA campaign, Primary Children's Medical Center has announced that it will no longer use cats -- lost, stray and abandoned animals obtained from the North Utah Valley Animal Shelter -- in a cruel and archaic training exercise during its annual Current Concepts in Neonatal and Pediatric Transport conference," wrote PETA officials in a statement. "For years, the conference, which is co-sponsored by the University of Utah, has included an intubation training exercise in which cats have hard plastic tubes repeatedly forced down their throats -- a procedure that can cause bleeding, swelling, collapsed lungs and even death. This year's conference will use only modern infant simulators."

Problem is, PETA's claims are not true, Midget said.

"There is no simulator for a 2-pound premature infant," she said. "We would love it if someone would make one."

Meanwhile, last year the Legislature changed its laws forcing shelters to sell abandoned cats and dogs for medical training. Primary Children's had such a hard time finding animals to use for its training that it was forced to turn to speciality breeders who raise cats to sell for medical research. But the prices were too high, so the hospital simply skipped the training altogether.

But continuing to skip the training would mean putting the most fragile infants at risk of death over time. The hospital said it is trying to figure out new options for training, and has not ruled out the possibility that it may have to use shelter cats for training simply because there is no other alternative.

"We don't know. That decision has not been made yet," she said. She noted that the hospital has spent "literally millions of dollars on simulators in the past five years. Failure to intubate one of these babies has dire consequences, such as death or neurological damage. This procedure is necessary for them to survive."

PETA's claims of how the animals were treated in training are false, Midget said. The cats were anesthetized and the whole procedure was supervised by a veterinarian. And 100 percent of the cats used were then adopted, many of them to the same nurses who used them for training. The animals had been scheduled for euthanization, and essentially being chosen for training saved their lives, Midget said.

PETA says 25,000 of its members sent protest e-mails to Primary Children's, and others called or protested in person. Midget said that some of those who protested had to be referred to police for intimidation and threats. PETA's actions did not change hospital policy, she said.

Caleb Warnock can be reached at cwarnock@heraldextra.com.