Rumors that U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz abused puppies during his time at Columbia University have been rampant lately on social media.
The claim almost sounds made up — as if detractors wanted to find the least defensible thing about the Republican nominee for senator from Pennsylvania. But is it valid? Like many internet memes, there appears to be some truth mixed with possible exaggeration or assumption.
Allegations that spread over the past few days, like a now viral tweet that explicitly states Oz himself “pumped injections into puppies hearts without sedation” are incorrect. No documents from the time corroborate the claim, and neither do people who were there.
“It wasn’t him that did the euthanasia of the puppies,” Catherine Dell’Orto, then a postdoctoral veterinary fellow at Columbia, told Billy Penn. Dell’Orto was the one who blew the whistle on studies that she says “were very badly done.”
The Senate candidate was in fact the director of a research program at Columbia when it agreed to settle animal abuse claims with the USDA.
Dell’Orto believes the settlement amount was too small — just $2,000 — and based on a faulty internal review. She said her claims about the abuse of dogs were ignored, both by the USDA and Sulli Popilskis, the head veterinarian involved in the research.
Popilskis, now at the City University of New York, told Billy Penn he didn’t recall the details of the allegations.
“It’s a very unfortunate issue, it’s easy to publish anything and have it spread,” he said, in regard to the current social media uproar. He added that he has the “greatest respect” for Oz as a cardiovascular surgeon, saying Oz has “always been on the frontline of advancing [heart health].”
The Oz campaign did not respond to a request for comment. So what’s the full story? Here’s what we know.
What was going on at Columbia?
In 2002, when Oz was the director of the Cardiovascular Institute at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Dell’Orto went public with allegations of animal mistreatment in medical research testing, and activism nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) waged a public campaign.
The primary allegation was abuse towards primates, according to the now-archived website columbiacruelty.com and a later student newspaper op-ed by a PETA-affiliated doctor recounting the circumstance. This fits with the recollection of Dell’Orto, the post doc at the time.
But it was the treatment of puppies that inserted Oz into the controversy. The 62-year-old first gained renown as a cardiovascular surgeon, and has contributed to multiple studies on cardiac function in dogs.
At Columbia, the experiments in question were meant to “model human cardiac failure,” per Dell’Orto. The dogs’ hearts were paced quickly for “six to eight weeks,” and then various treatments attempted to bring them back to proper heart function.
“There was no [humane] endpoint, major, multiple survival surgeries for these dogs. They suffered quite a bit prior to death, and a lot of them were just found dead in the cages,” Dell’Orto said.
“He was the principal investigator on these experiments,” she said of Oz.
After trying to bring attention to the issue through internal channels at Columbia and then the USDA, Dell’Orto said, she contacted PETA in 2002. She first told them about the treatment of macaques and baboons — and followed up later with details about the pups.
A 2003 letter from Mary Beth Sweetland, then director of PETA’s Research & Investigations Department, describes an incident involving a number of puppies:
“According to the complainant, a litter of fully conscious puppies was placed in a plastic bag and killed with an intracardiac (IC) injection of expired Beuthanasia-D…. According to the complainant, the puppies cried out as they received the IC injection because it is, of course, very painful and should not be done without first anesthetizing the animals.”
Oz is not mentioned in a series of these letters until after the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Columbia reached a settlement for $2,000 in the spring of 2004.
The settlement was based on an internal investigation by Columbia’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. The USDA accepted their findings, but Dell’Orto believes the review itself was faulty.
“That internal review had investigators on the committee that were also complicit in this type of poorly designed, cruel animal experimentation,” she recalled.
The committee’s findings, listed in the settlement agreement, don’t all pertain to dogs. The ones that do are dated October 2003:
- “Pups whelped from a dog being used in a research study were euthanised with outdated euthanasia solution; drug use logs indicate the pups were not properly sedated at the time as claimed by person administering euthanasia.”
- “Dog exercise plan does not provide evidence that plan is approved by the attending veterinarian.”
Documented breaks from protocol found in a November 2003 review include “the improper administration of an injectable euthanasia agent.” This violation didn’t explicitly mention dogs, but the misuse of euthanasia wasn’t alleged in the case of the primates — their reported abuse came from the conditions of their containment and experimental practices, some of which they were not properly anesthesized for.
Oz’s culpability, and the fallout
Administering euthanasia is rarely, if ever, left to department leaders or directors like Oz was at the time, Dell’Orto acknowledged. But she still feels he’s culpable.
“When your name is on the experiment, and the way the experiment is designed inflicts such cruelty to these animals, by design, there’s a problem,” she said.
Another letter from then-PETA investigations director Sweetland that followed the USDA settlement in the fall of 2004 does call out the current Senate candidate by name.
“Dr. Oz … is responsible for the extreme suffering endured by dogs used in his heart experiments,” the letter states. “Columbia’s IACUC appears to have approved these highly invasive and stressful experiments without demanding a humane endpoint for the animals.”
In the letter, Sweetland recaps the last 29 days in the life of a dog used in one of Oz’s experiments, based on what she describes as 6,313 records from the dog’s file. After weeks of improper eating, urination, bowel movements, and wound care, the last day is described.
“Day 29: Does not want to come out of cage, right hind leg swollen; catheter out; chewed through [tube], not eating, breathing very labored, no stool, tried to feed-will not eat anything; p.m. [Mehmet Oz] took for last experiment” (brackets PETA’s).
The USDA did not follow up on the later allegations from 2004, and neither did Columbia’s internal review.
According to a letter published by PETA, when Dell’Orto took her worries to then-head veterinarian Popilskis, replied “‘You still don’t understand do you? It’s all political.'”
The letter explains that “Dell’Orto understood this to mean that Oz could do whatever he wanted without being questioned because of his celebrity status.”
Asked about this by Billy Penn, Popilski noted that PETA is not a reliable source of information. The organization does have a reputation for being overzealous, if not dishonest, in its claims. But Dell’Orto was impressed with their professionalism when she worked with them.
“I didn’t find them lying about anything. Everything I had documentation [on], what I said, that is pretty much what they regurgitated and tried to get into the news.”
The result of the fairly light USDA settlement fine may have had a more subtle impact, Dell’Orto said: affecting future research grants for Oz: “I believe it was the NIH [National Institutes of Health] that stopped funding a lot of Dr. Oz’s work.”