Tasers to be tested on cocaine-drugged pigs

John Webster, a biomedical engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shows where a catheter will be placed inside a pig's heart to measure the effects of Taser stun guns.Andy Manis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison plans to study whether stun guns alone can kill pigs — or whether other medical factors are at play — as part of an effort to understand why 103 people have died in North America since 2001 after being shocked by Tasers.

Led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, outraged animal rights activists are calling for an end to the two-year study by John Webster, a professor emeritus of biomedical engineering.

Police hail stun guns — particularly Tasers, the most widely used brand — as a less lethal way to restrain unruly suspects. But critics blame the weapons for dozens of deaths, and police departments are reviewing how they use the devices, which shoot two small darts carrying about 50,000 volts of electricity to temporarily paralyze people.

'SuperTaser' to be used
Webster wants to test his hypothesis that Taser-related deaths were the result of heart failure fueled by drug use and other medical factors, not electrocution by the devices. To do so, researchers will begin in the next month studying how Taser electrical currents flow through 150-pound pigs.

Of three groups of pigs in the study, one will be given cocaine, one will be shocked with the devices, and one will be given both cocaine and electric blasts. Some will be subjected to Webster's "SuperTaser," up to 30 times as powerful as the model police use. All pigs will be on anesthesia so they won't feel pain.

"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," Webster said. "Our goal is to save lives."

Animal rights activists say the study, funded by a $500,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant, is cruel and unnecessary.

"Shocking more pigs is only going to add their numbers to the Taser-related death statistics," Patti Gilman, whose brother died after being shot with a Taser in British Columbia in June 2004, wrote in a letter to the school. "Robert's death never should have happened. And neither should these experiments."

Police and doctors could be served
In a letter to PETA this month, UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley said the study could have a significant impact on the use of stun guns. He said researchers have no other alternative than to use pigs, whose hearts are more like humans than any other species.

Webster said his research could lead to advice for how police should use the devices, standards for how powerful stun guns can be, and instructions for emergency room physicians on how to treat those who have been shocked.

Webster said one hypothesis is that some of the Taser-related deaths might be from a rare condition known as malignant hyperthermia, in which bodies essentially overheat. He will test that theory on swine that have been specially bred to have the condition.

Other suspects might have died if potassium that is released into the blood stream after muscle contractions caused by a Taser shock reached the heart, Webster said. Cocaine or other drug use might be another factor, he said.

Webster's research is the first independent look at how Tasers affect pigs' hearts. Research published in January sponsored by Taser International, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based maker of the devices, found that 15 times the charge from ordinary stun guns was needed to electrocute the heart of even the smallest pigs studied.

Taser said Webster is well-qualified to study the devices, which it says are safe. The company says Tasers are being used by more than 7,000 law enforcement, military and correctional agencies in the world.

Pigs to be euthanized
While all the pigs will be filled with anesthesia, they will be euthanized after the experiments, said Webster, who estimated about 30 pigs would be used. The research could create a computer model that would eliminate the need for more animal testing, he said.

"I think this is an outstanding example of one of those questions that can only be answered using animals," said Eric Sandgren, a UW-Madison professor who heads a committee that oversees animal research. "Boy, there's been a lot of deaths from this. If the alternative is to go back to using bullets, let's find out how to make this safe."

That's a worthy goal, but researchers should instead study humans who have survived Taser shocks and autopsy reports of those who died, said Laura Yanne of PETA.

"Subjecting pigs to cruel experiments is not the way to go on this. It's so obvious," she said. "This is a half-million dollar boondoggle."