Activists Angered by Researchers Plans to Test Stun Gun Safety on Pigs

With the ongoing controversy in the United States over the safety of stun guns manufactured by Taser International, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison plans to use an animal model with pigs to test whether or not illegal drugs may be playing a role in the high profile deaths of individuals who have been tasered.

According to the Associated Press, since 70 people have died in North American since 2001 after being shot by Tasers (though that’s a pretty useless statistic, since it does not give any indication of how frequently Tasers are used by police).

Taser International maintains its devices are safe for use on human beings. The media, including the Associated Press, make much of the fact that the Tasers pump out about 50,000 volts of electricity, but typically fail to note that this electricity is delivered with only 0.04 amps.

Fifty thousand volts is certainly going to be extremely painful, but its difficult to see how a mere 0.04 amps could cause the death of an otherwise healthy person. Generally, fatal electrocution is believed to require 0.1 to 0.2 amps in otherwise healthy people.

So one of the possibilities is that those being shocked and killed by Tasers share some other factor that it is increasing their vulnerability to low-amp shocks.

Enter University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher John Webster. Webster has received a two year $500,000 grant from the Justice Department to study whether or not cocaine might make people’s hearts susceptible go going into fibrillation even from the sort of low-amp shock present in a device like the Taser.

Webster plans to conduct experiments shocking 150-pound pigs with a device to simulate the effect of a Taser in a human being. Webster will use three groups of pigs, one that will be administered cocaine but not receive the shock; another that will not be administered cocaine but will receive the shock; and a third that will be administered both cocaine and the electrical shock.

Webster told the Associated Press,

If the hypothesis is correct that Tasers do not electrocute the heart, then why are people dying in custody after they have been shot by Tasers? The people on our team have hypotheses why that’s true and we intend to answer that question. Our goals is to save lives.

Of course activists, especially People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, were out in force urging calls and letters to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to stop the experiments.

But in doing so, PETA once again revealed its scientific illiteracy. As Webster mentions above, his group’s working hypothesis is that Tasers alone are not capable of causing the human heart to stop. Webster states that hypothesis in his grant documents, which leads PETA to conclude,

But rather than designing a study that would utilize information available from humans who have been stunned with Tasers, they elected to revert to cruel and antiquated tests on animals. John Webster was the perfect person to satisfy their safety claims, as he is already convinced that Tasers do not cause fatal cardiac arrest.

In another press release, PETA quotes from Taser critic James Angelo Ruggieri, who claims that,

The information conveyed in many other of Dr. Webster’s slides is also problematic. For instance, in one slide, Dr. Webster asks the question:

“Is 50,000 volts from the Taser the problem?”

Dr. Webster then answers his own question:

“No … the current, time duration and charge are too small to cause electrocution of the heart.”

This unsupported conclusion serves to undermine his hypothesis and appears to be an attempt to predetermine the outcome of future experiments Dr. Webster proposes to undertake–demonstrating an unprofessional research bias and violating the basic precepts of equipoise.

Wow, give that man a Nobel Prize. Ruggieri and PETA have single-handedly reduced the work that scientists will have to carry out by denying that stating or testing a hypothesis is a necessary part of scientific research. Instead, scientists from now on will simply make bald assertions without any sort of evidence or investigation — a lot like PETA and Ruggieri already do.

Perhaps someday Ruggieri will bother to learn why real scientists like Webster perform experiments with control groups and varying levels of blindedness.

University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Eric Sandgren, who heads the university’s animal use committee, told the Associated Press,

I think this is an outstanding example of one of those questions that can only be answered using animals. Boy, there’s been a lot of deaths frmo this. If the altenrative is to go back to using bullets, let’s find out how to make this safe.


Professor to test stun gun theories on pigs. Ryan Foley, Associated Press, March 28, 2005.

UW-Madison and John Webster—a Lethal Combination. Press Release, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Undated.

He Wants to Do What? Press Release, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Undated.

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