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Cat issue has life of its own

Citizen Staff Writer

It is certainly an unusual Tucson business – one that sells vacuum-packed dead cats: $44 for one or 10 for $415.

The company, which doesn’t kill the cats but buys them from shelters where the felines were euthanized, supplies the animals to be dissected by medical students.

And although the business tries to keep a low profile, a recent report by a national animal rights group criticized its operations and has led to death threats against the firm’s president.

The company is Delta Biological, which is based in Tucson and operates out of a couple of unsigned buildings in an industrial area on Tucson’s South Side.

Peter Reinthal, president of the company, said Delta does everything possible to ensure the dead cats it buys were treated and euthanized humanely.

But a new report “Dying to Learn” by the American Anti-Vivisection Society on the use of live and dead dogs and cats in classrooms, says that because Delta buys dead cats from Mexican pounds, it can’t be sure how they were treated or killed.

It wouldn’t be necessary to bring dead cats in from Mexico if the Pima Animal Care Center would sell the cats it euthanizes instead of burying them, says Reinthal.

He won’t say how many dead cats his company sells, but says the 6,000 stray and unwanted ones that Pima County euthanized last year would more than supply the company’s annual needs.

“They would rather have them go into the landfill than use them for educational purposes,” Reinthal said.

It’s not a very pleasant debate and it’s based almost entirely on emotion. The cats already are dead, so why not use them to teach medical students?

The Anti-Vivisection Society says there are alternatives to using live and dead dogs and cats for teaching – alternatives used by almost half of the nation’s medical schools.

And Delta’s “practice of obtaining cats from Mexico for sale in the United States is questionable,” according to the Dying to Learn report.

American animal shelters hold stray cats longer before euthanizing them than shelters in Mexico, said Laura Ducceschi, director of Animalearn, the educational division of the Anti-Vivisection Society.

And Mexican euthanasia methods are often “a lot more inhumane,” she said.

Ducceschi said she has “significant concerns” about Delta’s operations, adding, “The average student doesn’t really know they are dissecting a cat that may have been treated inhumanely in Mexico.”

Not so, responds Reinthal. All of the dead cats sold by Delta “are obtained legally and euthanized under guidelines of the American Veterinary Council,” he said. “We make sure our sources are 100 percent legal and ethical.”

But the issue is far larger than how the cats were cared for and how they were euthanized.

“They have a definite biased slant,” Reinthal said of the Anti-Vivisection Society. “They are out to promote their political agenda.”

Ducceschi doesn’t disagree, saying her group is opposed to “trading animal cadavers for profit.”

In addition to cats, Delta sells dead pigeons, fish, grasshoppers, mink, rabbits, rats and fetal pigs as well as various invertebrates such as jellyfish and sponges.

Reinthal says he doesn’t want to get involved in the political discussion about whether dissecting such creatures is necessary to properly train students.

“I’m not pro-dissection or anti-dissection,” he said, adding that students should have the option of not taking part in dissections.

But because the issue is so politically charged, Delta doesn’t advertise its location. Its plain white building has only a small “Office” sign on the door. In a compound enclosed by a fence topped with barbed wire, there are scores of drums of chemicals. A keypad is required to enter.

After Delta was identified in the Dying to Learn report, Reinthal received a half-dozen e-mailed threats. One, filled with obscenities, threatened to “cut you open and see what you look like and peel your skin off. . . . I wish I could send people to kill you hurting animals is wrong.”

Reinthal turned the threats over to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, but it’s not clear if anything will be done.

When I first heard about Delta’s business, I was shocked. I hesitate to kill bugs and I carry spiders outside, so selling dead cats seemed disgusting.

But is it less disgusting to throw those dead cats in a landfill when a medical student may be able to learn something from it?

I wish there was an easy answer.

Mark Kimble appears at 6:30 p.m. Fridays on the Roundtable segment of “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV, Channel 6.

He may be reached by e-mail at mkimble@tucsoncitizen.com or by calling 573-4662.

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