People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Madison-based Alliance for Animals petitioned Tuesday to bring criminal animal cruelty charges against the University of Wisconsin for allegedly illegally performing decompression experiments on sheep.

The animal rights groups argued Wisconsin state law prohibits decompression experiments which result in an animal’s death. UW’s experiments place sheep in hyperbaric pressure chambers to simulate going underwater or a deep sea dive.

According to Eric Sandgren, director at UW’s Research Animal Resources Center, the university has conducted decompression experiments on sheep for many years following U.S. Navy funding. Researchers have gone on to develop treatment plans for divers in both military and job-related spheres based on the series of studies.

Sandgren added the statute in Wisconsin prohibits a method of euthanasia used in animal shelters, where decompression was simulated by withdrawing air from a room.

“The law is very general,” Sandgren said. “My read on it is that it would not include the kinds of studies we do.”

The Alliance for Animals argues the university’s experiments have broken a state statute, which in its entirety reads: “Decompression prohibited: No person may kill an animal by means of decompression.”

Sandgren added UW halted these decompression experiments involving sheep last summer after the Alliance’s claims of animal cruelty.

The petition comes after a campus debate Monday on the rights of non-human primate research. According to Alliance for Animals Director Rick Bogle, the two events align generally. Bogle says they both show UW’s recent violations in regard to cruelty against animals, adding UW should seriously look into its research policies.

Bogle added UW has an absolute responsibility to know and follow state laws in regard to cruelty against animals.

He also called the experiments a “blatant case of breaking the law,” and while the design of the experiments may not be illegal, the fact that sheep died is.

Bogle added the Alliance and PETA seek an order from Wisconsin courts to cease and desist, and also hope to fine the university for the sheep’s deaths and to discourage the university from breaking state law and hurting animals.

However, Sandgren says the UW has three ways to proceed: stopping the studies, specifying what exactly Wisconsin law refers to in terms of decompression and modifying experimental design.

“The experiments are not designed for animals to die,” Sandgren said. “So the studies themselves are not the problem. The fact that animals die is the problem.”

Sandgren added there are ways to change decompression experiments to help ensure animals will not die in the course of the study. For instance, remote monitoring of blood pressure and heart rate would give researchers more notice if an animal is having problems, and to help solve those problems.

“This is another step local activists are taking to try to stop this research and that’s their right,” Sandgren said. “Our responsibility is to try and move this research forward in a way that’s legal, because it is important.”