When four missing kinkajous--cuddly, long-tailed members of the raccoon family--were returned to UC Irvine Wednesday by order of a Texas court, it was only the latest chapter in a months-long saga involving animal rights activists, a Ph.D. candidate and the Texas Rangers.
The tale is a complicated one with many twists.
In addition to ordering the animals returned to UCI, U.S. District Judge Charles Gonzalez in San Antonio last week granted visitation rights to animal rights activists and temporarily halted experiments on the animals.
Gonzalez's temporary restraining order was a result of a lawsuit that Primarily Primates Inc., an animal center in San Antonio, filed against Ph.D. candidate Cary Chevalier, charging that the UCI researcher had abandoned the kinkajous and was therefore not their rightful owner. A full hearing on the case is pending.
Chevalier and an attorney UCI hired to defend him say the animals were stolen from him by groups opposed to the use of animals in scientific research.
By hiring a lawyer to represent Chevalier, UCI probably has become one of the first institutions to stand up to animal rights activists who are becoming more vocal in their protests, lawyers for the university said.
"It is UCI's intent to get a message to the animal rights activists that if they are going to obtain custody of animals, they do so properly, legally and without victimization of those people whose animals they have taken without the right and legal authority to do so," said Dr. Paul Sypherd, UCI's vice chancellor of research and graduate studies.
"We don't want to do anything illegal," said Wally Swenn, director of the San Antonio center. "We're not stealing animals. There's a lot of sneaky things going on, and it's not right, and it's not fair to the animals.
"I just find UCI just being totally wrong here. They're taking it as an attack on their biomedical practices, and that's not it."
Chevalier, a doctoral student in biology, has spent the last two years studying the effects of changing climate on kinkajous, which are native to the tropical rain forests of Mexico and South America. His research was part of a broad field of study on how wildlife adapts to changes in the environment.
Among the experiments he has performed are ones that subjected the animals to temperatures ranging from 32 to 113 degrees. Chevalier said the kinkajous, which are like pets to him, are not being harmed by the research. His experiments, which are closely monitored, could ultimately ensure the survival of their species, he said.
Last year, Chevalier took a sabbatical to both write his dissertation and take a job with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. He had to find a temporary home for the kinkajous as he waited to obtain the necessary permits to keep the animals with him in Arizona.
By inquiring about in the network of animal care services, Chevalier was told about the Animal Rehabilitation Center of Midlothian, Tex. He sent his kinkajous there last May, checking on them periodically.
In October, Chevalier said, Karen Wakeland, director of the center, called him in Arizona to say that the animals had escaped. Alarmed, Chevalier sent flyers to various state and local agencies about the missing animals.
A few weeks later, Chevalier said, a sheriff's deputy from Ellis County in northern Texas who had seen the flyers told him that Wakeland had hired him to transport the kinkajous to Primarily Primates, an animal center in San Antonio.