Some 70 video surveillance cameras monitor the medical school complex where Yale University graduate student Annie Le's body was found last weekend.
That type of electronic equipment has increasingly become part of the regular framework of animal research labs — in part because of threats from animal rights activists. The heavy security measures are designed to protect people and property as well as the animals that provide valuable information for researchers conducting scientific experiments.
There are more than 1,000 research facilities in the U.S. registered with the Agriculture Department, and many are tied to universities. Divulging information about their security plans is not on the top of their list — and most that NPR contacted declined to do so.
Frankie Trull, the president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research in Washington. D.C., says research labs have been beefing up their security systems ever since the 1980s, when animal activists conducted a rash of break-ins.
"So if someone from off the sidewalk wanted to walk through a lab, I would suggest that would be difficult to do in the vast majority of the university research facilities around the country," Trull says.
For many universities with research facilities, it's been a balancing act determining how much to spend on security versus the campus library or extracurricular activities, for example.
But Richard Bianco, the head of experimental surgery at the University of Minnesota, says it's a challenge research facilities have had to address. His school began to do so a decade ago after animal-rights activists came on campus.
"They let our animals go in a northern suburb of Minneapolis in April, which either the eagles and raptors got them — or the cold got them. They killed our animals," Bianco says. "In addition, many of our students had their Ph.D. thesis based on the data from some of the learning experiments in psychology. Some of these animals were highly trained — pigeons, for instance — and they had to start all over with that. In addition, [the activists] destroyed cell cultures where we were growing cells to treat cancer patients — and that was destroyed and was not recoverable."
The university put cameras in hallways and common areas, required key cards for access into certain lab rooms and facilities, and put up panic alarms — buttons that could be pressed to alert police to come to the area.
Jack Hessler, the co-editor of a document on planning and designing research facilities — a project of the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine — says that beyond setting up cameras, card swipes, and key card controls, some facilities use biometrics like a handprint or retina identification in addition to an ID card.
"Even the dean and on down the line of people don't have access to it if they aren't doing animal research inside of the facility and they aren't approved to do the research. They don't get in," Hessler says.
Trull with the Foundation for Biomedical Research says protecting employees is paramount, but the animals are also important. Take mice and rats — many of them are genetically modified, and it can take a great deal of time, as well as money, to get the particulars in place that researchers are trying to create.
"They need to be in special environments," Trull says. "A lot of them are receiving treatments that ultimately will translate into human medicine. So when they're stolen, it can ruin years of a research project."
One of the last major break-ins at a university research facility occurred at the University of Iowa five years ago, when the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for removing hundreds of animals — mostly mice and rats — from research labs. ALF activists also smashed computers and destroyed research documents. At the time, the group said it had bypassed many of the security measures.
Trull and others agree that no security system is foolproof, and there's always the risk of an inside job. The key to the surveillance systems is to make sure someone is always monitoring what's being recorded by the cameras.