A Stunning Waste of Pigs

The Physicians Committee

Beyond Animal Research

By Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D.
June 2005

A Stunning Waste of Pigs

A recent story appeared in New Scientist concerning the use of stun guns for immobilizing dangerous persons.1 The most prominent of these devices is the Taser. Commercially available since 1974, Tasers look much like handguns, but instead of firing a bullet they release two 4 mm barbs that penetrate the victim’s skin and deliver a 50,000-volt jolt of electricity. Victims momentarily lose muscle control and collapse instantly.

The New Scientist report mentioned that, in response to concerns about human deaths associated with Taser use, animal tests were being initiated to assess their effects on the hearts of anesthetized pigs. One such study will be conducted at the University of Wisconsin.

Ethical concerns notwithstanding, what scientific justification could there be for such experiments? Surely 30 years of use in the field has generated some useful clinical data on the potential hazards associated with Tasers.
Indeed, it has. Here are some examples:

  • A comparison of clinical outcomes of 218 Taser victims with 22 similar patients shot with 38 mm handguns reported on long-term morbidity (0 percent and 50 percent, respectively), mortality (1.4 percent and 50 percent), and possible complications associated with Taser wounds.2
  • An investigation of 16 Taser-associated deaths conducted by the Los Angeles Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner concluded that the Taser itself did not cause death, but may have contributed to one death. All victims were young males, and all but three were under the influence of narcotics when they were shocked.3
  • A 1985 paper discussed clinical aspects of Taser injury, including barb injury, secondary injury from electrical current, ventricular fibrillation, and possible interactions with implanted pacemakers.4
  • The Taser company maintains a database of over 2,000 Tasered subjects, which includes minor, moderate, and severe injuries. There are also estimated to have been some 10,000 uses of the New Advanced Taser introduced in 1999, plus an additional 30,000 deployments on “volunteers.”5

Despite these reliable human data, the new University of Wisconsin pig study is going ahead at a cost of $500,000. Nor is it the first such study.

A paper published in January 2005 reports on nine juvenile pigs subjected to Taser-like shocks of up to 42 times that of fielded devices to determine minimum thresholds for inducing heart fibrillation.6 A decade earlier, one of this study’s authors, Robert Stratbucker, shocked an anesthetized pig 48 times with a Taser, reporting no effect on the pig's heart.7

Stratbucker’s colleague, Wayne McDaniel, then shocked five dogs 236 times in the chest area (again, no ventricular fibrillation), before repeating a study on (you’ll never guess) 10 anesthetized pigs, using up to 15 times standard power, with no resulting ventricular fibrillation.8

This scenario not only illustrates wasteful repetition in dubious animal research, it corroborates the conclusions of a 2004 report from the British Medical Journal: animal studies are often conducted despite the availability of more reliable human clinical data.9

Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D., is a PCRM research consultant with a background in ethology. He is the author of The Use of Animals in Higher Education, as well as many scientific papers on humane life science education and animal behavior. His recent scientific review showing that animal experiments are more stressful than previously understood was published in Contemporary Topics in Laboratory Animal Science.

1. Hambling D. Police toy with ‘less lethal’ guns. New Sci. 2005;186:23.
2. Ordog GJ, Wasserberger J, Schlater T, Balasubramanium S. Electronic gun (Taser) injuries. Ann Emerg Med. 1987;16:73-78.
3. Kornblum RN, Reddy SK. Effects of the Taser in fatalities involving police confrontation. J Forensic Sci. 1991;36:434-438.
4. Koscove EM. Taser dart ingestion. J Emerg Med. 1987;5:493-498.
5. Bleetman A, Steyn R, Lee C. Introduction of the Taser into British policing. Implications for UK emergency departments: an overview of electronic weaponry. Emerg Med J. 2004;21:136-140.
6. McDaniel WC, Stratbucker RA, Nerheim M, Brewer JE. Cardiac safety of neuromuscular incapacitating defensive devices. Pacing Clin Electrophysiol. 2005;28(Suppl 1):S284-287.
7. Le PC, Castro H. Is 'non-lethal' Taser deadly? Seattle Post-Intelligencer 2004, December 1.
8. Pound P, Ebrahim S, Sandercock P, Bracken MB, Roberts I. Where is the evidence that animal research benefits humans? British Medical Journal. 2004;328:514-517