ANDRIY PAZUNIAK/Herald file photo

The University of Wisconsin campus may become home to the nation's first-ever animal rights exhibition hall, as a judge ruled Monday in favor of a Madison-based animal rights group in a longstanding property dispute.

The controversy started when Primate Freedom Project signed a contract to purchase a small warehouse between two UW primate research labs from local business owner Roger Charly. However, Charly later tried to back out of the deal when the university offered him more money for the property.

The dispute remained unresolved until yesterday, when Dane County Judge Sarah O'Brien ruled in favor of the original contract and ordered Charly to sell the warehouse for $675,000 to the Primate Freedom Project. The warehouse is located on Capitol Court, near the intersection of Regent and Charter streets.

"I was surprised by the ruling," Freedom Project founder Rick Bogle said in an interview. "We have believed that the contract is valid, but we also understand the influence the University of Wisconsin has over local politics."

According to Bogle, the goal of the exhibition hall would be to educate the community, and eventually the country, on the cruel use of animals in scientific research.

The facility would feature photographs, videos, interactive exhibits and examples of devices used in the lab, specifically with monkeys in biomedical research. Bogle also said the project would bring in speakers from around the world to lead forums and workshops on animal cruelty.

"Our immediate audience is the university community, then Madison, Dane County, the state of Wisconsin, and then the U.S.," he said. "We think a fully informed electorate would demand these [research] labs be closed."

Bogle added other animal rights projects are temporary, but said the exhibition hall would be an "open-ended proposition" and would create dialogue about primate freedom.

UW physiology professor Joseph Kemnitz, director of the Wisconsin Regional Primate Center, said the case is a "continuing process," and noted it is likely Charly will appeal the decision.

And Kemnitz added any definite plans for completion of the animal rights exhibition hall would be "premature," since the university also has ideas for the development of the property.

"Judge O'Brien's decision today represented the completion of one step in the process," he said. "We have been eager to purchase the property so we could use it to expand our facilities. The property is valuable to us for other reasons besides stopping the animal rights group."

In an interview with The Badger Herald earlier this month, UW Associate Vice Chancellor Alan Fish went as far as to call the contested property "absolutely critical" to the future of primate research at UW.

Kemnitz said for the animal rights activists, the whole process of purchasing the warehouse has been "an unexpected opportunity for them to cause trouble." According to Kemnitz, the Primate Freedom Project chose the location between the UW primate centers specifically to gain publicity and attention.

"I think [the ruling] is just part of a continuing process," Kemnitz said. "There will be more developments to come."

If Charly decides not to appeal, which even Bogle said is unlikely, the exhibition hall could be able to open its doors as early as this spring. But with the appeal, he added, plans for the facility would be delayed more than a year.

"The university … will probably be embarrassed to have the [animal rights] debate take place at the steps where this is going on," Bogle said. "They will probably try to delay this every step of the way."

Charly, who owns the Budget Bicycle Center on Regent Street, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment as of press time.

Current research in UW's primate labs focus on aging and metabolic disease studies, including obesity and Parkinson's disease; immunogenetics and virology studies, including investigation of possible HIV/AIDS vaccines; and reproduction and development studies, including embryonic stem-cell biology and maternal-fetal health.

The Wisconsin National Primate Research Center is one of eight federally funded primate centers in the nation and the only one in the Midwest.

— Andriy Pazuniak contributed to this report.