We're not sure which phrase best describes the Max Planck Institute's response to our questions about its treatment of the hundreds of animals it holds captive and on whose nervous systems it experiments. Perhaps "Nothing to see here. Move along." Or "We ask the questions." We're not happy with either.
The Jupiter neuroscience lab, which was lured to Palm Beach County in 2008 with the use of $94 million in public funds, was cited by federal authorities last year for animal welfare violations.
In May, the USDA warned the institute about its hiring procedures, finding inadequate review of the qualifications of staff hired to perform surgery and euthanasia.
In August, the agency found multiple problems, including failure to allow the institute's attending veterinarian "appropriate authority" to "ensure the provision of adequate animal care."
The August report stated that the veterinarian "indicated that frequent animal updates were only provided regarding a small portion of the total animal population" and that "he has been unable to personally review surgical procedures" and was "unable to adequately oversee proper performance of these procedures and related surgical care."
In a series of emails about the USDA citations, institute representatives offered limited responses to New Times queries, then drew the curtain.
Initially, regarding veterinary care, Planck Chief Operations Officer Ivan Baines stated: "The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience maintains the highest level of veterinary care at all times. The Animal Welfare Act does not require facilities to have a veterinarian on-site at all times. We employ an attending veterinarian plus a back-up veterinarian to ensure that animals receive needed care and treatment at any time of day or night, seven days per week."
We replied that Baines failed to address the attending vet's allegations. We asked if the allegations were true or not. We asked if, in the case the allegations were false, the vet had been fired. And, if the allegations were true, what had been done to correct them.
We also asked for comment on the claims of local animal welfare activists that 1) "two adverse animal incidents" mentioned in the USDA's August report occurred in the laboratory of Planck CEO Dr. David Fitzpatrick and 2) Fitzpatrick "either ordered or approved the removal of the attending veterinarian."
Finally, we asked about guidelines for veterinarians' access to the institute's animals and who set those guidelines.
Baines responded: "We do not agree with the way in which the inspection report is phrased, but don't believe it's appropriate to discuss the details of the issue publicly. We can say that the veterinary staff had access to the animals and facilities as needed and the animals received proper medical care at all times."
Regarding Fitzpatrick and the veterinary staff, he wrote: "we do not engage in public discussions about our scientists or employees."
That only provoked us to email more questions: What "phrase[s]" did they dispute, and why? Why isn't it "appropriate" to discuss publicly details of the issue? Who dictates veterinary staff's access, what constitutes "as needed," and, again, what about the vet's complaints to the USDA?
As for Baines' effort to paint questions about Fitzpatrick as mere personnel issues, we replied that given the massive public investment in Planck, the public has a right to know the role of the CEO in matters that trouble the USDA. It also seems to us that if, as it appears, the vet turned whistleblower, the vet's fate is not just a staffing issue.
Those were too many questions for Planck, apparently.
In a final email, a Planck media rep wrote: "The organization's superb international reputation speaks for itself. It is fully accountable and transparent to their supervising boards both here and in Germany, their professional organizations, scientific and academic partners, donors, and state and local government entities that provided funding to bring the institute here to Florida. As stated in the previous email, the Institute does not discuss personnel issues of any type in public forums, in keeping with the norms of any company or organization."
We'll set aside the questions of (1) what "norms" apply to "any company or organization" that receives massive public subsidies and engages in animal experimentation, and (2) why the general public is not among those bodies to which the institute is "fully accountable and transparent."
What strikes us is Planck's arrogance when it invokes its "superb international reputation" to shield itself. The Jupiter facility is an arm of a German body, the Max Planck Society, which will be forever sullied by its connection to the Nazis.
The society, at least, had the moral fiber to come clean -- though 50 years after the fact. In 1997, it formed a commission to investigate the history of its predecessor organization, stating that "the Kaiser Wilhelm Society's past as the predecessor organisation and especially its connections to the NS-Regime are regarded as an integral part of the Max Planck Society's past as well."
The commission's findings make for some lurid reading:
"No Time to Debate and Ask Questions" -- Forced Labor for Science in the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, 1939-1945
Brain Research and the Murder of the Sick: The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research, 1937-1945
Two Hundred Blood Samples From Auschwitz: A Nobel Laureate and the Link to Auschwitz
Chemical Weapons Research in National Socialism: The Collaboration of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes With the Military and Industry
"Whitewash Culture": How the Kaiser Wilhelm/Max Planck Society Dealt With the Nazi Past
The first and last of those papers have particular resonance for the matter at hand. Apparently the institute believes there's limited "time to debate and ask questions" about the "forced labor for science" of the animals they experiment on. And perhaps the institute has inherited an inclination for "whitewash culture."
As a rule, we believe there should be a permanent embargo on the use of Nazi metaphors in public debate -- such comparisons typically rely on vertigo-inducing slippery slopes and rarely hold up. But the Nazi dimension of the Planck Institute's "reputation" - -so glibly invoked by its hired flacks -- is not metaphor. It is historical fact.
That's the past, of course (though wisdom counsels "past is prelude"). But neither are we totally sold on the institute's present. Not when its board of trustees includes Henry Kissinger, whose blood-soaked résumé merits a war-crimes indictment instead of a seat of honor and when its sponsors include the notorious, prison-for-profit operator the Geo Group.
We can't force the institute to reveal more of its internal affairs. Only federal regulators and local law enforcement can do that. (Not that we expect local authorities to investigate Planck for violation of the county's statute on animal experimentation.) But we are not going to let it brush us off on the basis of its so-called reputation -- not without putting that reputation under a microscope.
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