On the evening of Aug. 16, Halifax local Allison Sparling tweeted a picture of a pallet in an Atlantic Superstore location carrying 372 cans of No Name Brand cat food labeled with a crude sign reading “Dalhousie.”
lol this large cart of no name brand beef cat food is marked “Dalhousie” enjoy your meal plan Dal students pic.twitter.com/RWWMqB0kcw
— Allison Sparling (@Allisomething) August 16, 2015
Sparling’s light-hearted tweet, joking that the cat food would be part of new students’ meal plans, provoked humorous questions from curious Twitter onlookers on possibilities for the cat food’s destiny.
Over the next few days, the cat food received nationwide publicity and sparked a series of news articles that has animal rights activists planning a protest against animal research at Dalhousie.
Within an hour of Sparling’s tweet, the Gazette visited the Atlantic Superstore location where the cat food was located. A manager confirmed the cans were indeed scheduled for a delivery to Dal, but said they did not know what department would receive the half-ton of cat food.
BREAKING: Manager confirms 230kg of cat food scheduled for Dalhousie pickup tomorrow, unsure what food is for. pic.twitter.com/6Pj6D9Sflh
— Dalhousie Gazette (@DalGazette) August 17, 2015
The Gazette emailed Dalhousie Communications, asking what department the cat food was intended for and for what purpose.
By the afternoon of Aug. 17, one day later, dozens of journalists, Dalhousie students and Twitter users from around the world had picked up on the Dalhousie cat food mystery.
Around noon, someone shared a mysterious picture with the Gazette of the cat food arriving in a receiving area, saying the cans had arrived at their destination but not naming their location.
The Gazette visited Dalhousie’s departments of Psychology and Biology, as well as the Tupper Medical Building, asking staff in reception and receiving areas if they knew anything about Dal receiving cat food or hosting cats.
No one indicated they had any knowledge of recent cat food shipments, except a receptionist in the Medical School who said she only knew of experiments involving cats at Dalhousie that had occurred years ago.
Shortly after 2 p.m., the Gazette received a response from Dal Communications spokeswoman Janet Bryson who said, “The cat food is used to feed cats that are being used for behavioural research at the University.”
Asked for more details, Bryson elaborated: “[…] the cats are used humanely in research into Amblyopia. Amblyopia is the most common serious eye condition in children in North America and has consequences on learning, socialization and other important aspects of human sensory development and cognition.”
The Gazette livetweeted the day’s journey across campus looking for Dalhousie’s cats for what was intended to be a light-hearted, humorous, interactive online story.
On a mid-August Monday, during Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first visit to Nova Scotia during the campaign period for the upcoming federal election, the Dalhousie Cat Food Mystery was a well-needed break from hard news for some.
And while Dalhousie does not advertise their experiments with cats on Dal.ca – a site which does include extensive documentation of the certificates Dalhousie requires researchers to have before they may perform research involving non-human animals – it did seem likely all along that Dalhousie may, in fact, host cats which are used in experiments.
But discussion of the cat food further erupted after Buzzfeed Canada published a story, People Demanded Answers After A University Bought 372 Cans Of No Name Cat Food, chronicling the day’s events.
Buzzfeed’s story was shared more than 4,400 times over Facebook and Twitter, and within the week, the Chronicle Herald followed up.
Pet Corner columnist Pat Lee pointed out a 2013 interview with Dalhousie associate psychology professor Kevin Duffy published by the Truro Daily News, “Local researcher sees fix for ‘lazy eye’ in kittens.”
Duffy’s research focuses on amblyopia, the condition Dal Communications mentioned when queried on the cat food.
The Daily News article says all kittens used in Duffy’s amblyopia research are bred at Dalhousie for research and the work is approved by the Canadian Council on Animal Care.
The research involves kittens living in a room that is kept totally dark after they have had a single eyelid sutured shut under anesthetic. A radio is playing in the room, and workers trained to navigate the room in the dark take care of the cats who are monitored by camera.
The Daily News article says all kittens used in the research have been adopted, and when asked about people who feel negatively about the research, Duffy is quoted as saying, “Some people don’t agree with it, and I respect that. I usually ask them if they would rather not use them and not having any advancements in medical procedures.”
Lee, in the Herald, says this is not the only cat research happening at Dal: “A master’s thesis on experiments done at the school and published last year says adult cats were used in similar fashion, then some were euthanized so their brains could be removed and examined,” writes Lee.
Within a day of Lee’s column being published, an online petition at Change.org titled “STOP DALHOUSIE UNIVERSITY FROM TESTING ON CATS/KITTENS!!!” was created by someone identifying themselves as Laurie Wheeler of Aylesford, Nova Scotia.
“This must be stopped. These people have no right to do this to cats and/or kittens,” says the petition description of the research described in Lee’s column. “It is inhumane!!!”
As of Sept. 4, the petition that asks for Dalhousie to stop all animal testing has received more than 1,800 online signatures.
On a Facebook event page, some local animal rights activists are discussing plans for a protest of Dalhousie using animals in research, occurring on Sept. 6.
The protest is not associated with any Dal student groups.
Jesse, editor-in-chief of the Gazette, is a fifth-year student of journalism at Dalhousie and the University of King’s College. He started university with three years of experience writing for Teens Now Talk magazine, where he is now copy editor. Before writing a story Jesse likes to think about how his metal detector could finally be useful in researching this one, but there is never a way it could be. Jesse has produced writing and interactive features for Globalnews.ca and The Chronicle Herald. He may be followed on Twitter, @RealJesseWard, or from the Gazette office on Mondays around 8 p.m. to his home in West End Halifax.
Email Jesse at firstname.lastname@example.org.