Bio Corporation, an Alexandria company that provides specimens for dissection in classrooms, was charged with 25 counts of animal cruelty after a hidden-camera video was produced by the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The misdemeanor charges, filed by the Alexandria City Attorney's Office on Dec. 29, accuse the company of drowning five pigeons and injecting 20 live crayfish with latex dye in order to kill them. Under state law, it's a crime to "willfully instigate or in any way further any act of cruelty to any animal or animals."
PETA wanted to investigate how animal specimens are prepared and it focused on Bio Corp when a job opened up there. A PETA activist landed the job and shot the video.
Each of the 25 charges is punishable by up to 90 days behind bars and a fine of up to $1,000.
Ben Hedstrom, owner of the company, said he's being unfairly singled out.
"The city didn't have to prosecute this," he told the Echo Press Wednesday. "It's a one-sided deal."
Hedstrom noted that PETA is creating "a lot of drama and gossip" about his business, which employs 50 people and has been operating for 25 years in the city's Industrial Park on Nevada Street. He said he hasn't broken any laws and said common sense should prevail when it comes to killing animals.
"The way I look at this is that with crayfish, they're killed every day when they're put in hot water in Louisiana," he said. "And how do you cook a lobster?"
In a news release, PETA said the criminal charges "send a strong message to the cruel, secretive animal-dissection industry that it's not above the law," according to its senior vice president of cruelty investigations, Daphna Nachminovitch. "The only sure way for caring educators and students to guarantee that they're not supporting cruelty is by opting for superior virtual-dissection methods," she said.
Paul McCarten, an Alexandria attorney who is representing Bio Corp, said the allegations are untrue. He said the company only uses methods that are approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association and deemed to be the best method of handling and preparing species by veterinarians in Minnesota.
"We are in full compliance with criminal laws and at no time have we ever been cruel to
animals," McCarten said in an email. "Bio Corp is highly ethical and sensitive to the public perception of our operation.
"We understand that we were the subject of an undercover sting type investigation," McCarten added. "Unfortunately, the animals observed in that investigation, including the pigeons and the crayfish, put our operation in a bad light. We hope to continue to provide specimens for educational institutions as we have for many years."
McCarten said that most often, the animals that the company receives are frozen and collected from throughout the country. Some are collected on a regional basis.
Pigeons, he said, are problematic for farmers because they can carry disease as they circulate from farm to farm. "Particularly troublesome is the potential disease spread amongst avian (bird) species," McCarten said. "Bird flu recently devastated turkey producers in Minnesota and throughout the Midwest. As such, the farmers want to rid farms of pigeons to avoid this disease transmission potential."
Bio Corp, McCarten said, collects the pigeons that are delivered by farmers, including some that are alive. The company then euthanizes the birds and prepare the carcasses for educational
He said the company's policy was to euthanize the birds with gas but determined that water submersion was arguably a more humane method because of the short time necessary to complete the process.
Because of PETA's complaint, the company is now using gas, McCarten said.
The company purchases crayfish from a Gulf of Mexico provider, McCarten said. They're shipped live to preserve the specimen and avoid any degradation. In the past, the company relied upon an ethanol solution for this purpose.
Because of the complaints raised, Bio Corp will determine whether the crayfish can be sent frozen to avoid that step in the process.
"We will review the methods to assure that we are using the best and most sensitive method of preparation, as we do with all of our specimens," McCarten said.
The city's case
According to a statement of probable cause, a veterinarian hired by PETA, Dr. Ingrid Taylor, testified at an Oct. 26 hearing in Douglas County that drowning pigeons is an unacceptable practice for euthanizing birds. She said that drowning causes an unnecessarily painful and prolonged death, taking up to 10 minutes.
Taylor testified that injecting crayfish with latex is also unacceptable and prohibited under the American Veterinary Medical Association's recommendations for euthanasia. She said the crayfish would feel pain and suffering for up to 10 minutes.
Court documents say that after police saw PETA's video and reviewed the Oct. 26 hearing transcripts, an Alexandria police detective met with the Bio Corp owners, Hedstrom and William Wadd, on Nov. 22.
Hedstrom told the detective that the facility is inspected and licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and that the facility follows the American Veterinary Medical Association's guidelines with any live specimens that are on site. He said they euthanize the pigeons "the best way we know how," according to the statement of probable cause.
Hedstrom told the detective that the crayfish in the video were dead before being injected and all crayfish are placed in a large bag and submerged in a mixture of ethylene glycol, formalin and acetone.
Later, the detective contacted Dr. Taylor to find out if the mixture satisfied the veterinary association's euthanasia guidelines for crayfish and she said that acetone and ethylene glycol, which is the main ingredient in antifreeze, are considered unacceptable for euthanasia of aquatic invertebrates. She said that formaldehyde and formalin are unacceptable except as a second step of a two-step euthanasia process, where the animals are first rendered unconscious through an acceptable first-step process.
The first hearing in the case is scheduled for Jan. 31 at the Douglas County Courthouse.