A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison plans to study whether stun guns alone can kill pigs – or whether other medical factors must be at play – as part of an effort to understand why 70 people have died in North America since 2001 after being shocked by Tasers.

Police hail stun guns as a nonlethal way to restrain unruly suspects. But critics blame the weapons for dozens of deaths, and police departments are reviewing how they use the devices, which shoot two small darts carrying about 50,000 volts of electricity to temporarily paralyze people.

Webster wants to test his hypothesis that Taser-related deaths were the result of heart failure fueled by drug use and other medical factors, not electrocution by the devices. To do so, researchers will begin in the next month studying how Taser electrical currents flow through 150-pound pigs.

Of three groups of pigs in the study, one will be given cocaine, one will be shocked with the devices, and one will be given both cocaine and electric blasts. Some will be subjected to Webster’s “SuperTaser,” up to 30 times as powerful as the model police use. All pigs will be on anesthesia so they won’t feel pain.

“If the hypothesis is correct that Tasers do not electrocute the heart, then why are people dying in custody after they have been shot by Tasers? The people on our team have hypotheses why that’s true and we intend to answer that question,” Webster said. “Our goal is to save lives.”

Animal rights activists say the study, funded by a $500,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant, is cruel and unnecessary. They plan protests on the UW-Madison campus starting this week.

“Shocking more pigs is only going to add their numbers to the Taser-related death statistics,” Patti Gilman, whose brother died after being shot with a Taser in British Columbia in June 2004, wrote in a letter to the school. “Robert’s death never should have happened. And neither should these experiments.”

In a letter to PETA this month, UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley said the study could have a significant impact on the use of stun guns. He said researchers have no other alternative than to use pigs, whose hearts are more like humans than any other species.

In Wisconsin, the state Department of Justice convened an advisory committee to create guidelines for police training and use of Tasers. On Tuesday, the committee is scheduled to hold its first public hearing in Stevens Point, where Webster will be among four presenters.

Webster said his research could lead to advice for how police should use the devices, standards for how powerful stun guns can be, and instructions for emergency room physicians on how to treat those who have been shocked.

Webster suggested some of the Taser-related deaths were from a rare condition known as malignant hyperthermia, in which bodies essentially overheat. He will test that theory on swine that have been specially bred to have the condition.

Other suspects may have died if potassium that is released into the blood stream after muscle contractions caused by a Taser shock reached the heart, Webster said. Cocaine use might be another factor, he said.

Webster’s research is the first independent look at how Tasers affect pigs’ hearts. Research published in January sponsored by Taser International, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based maker of the devices, found that 15 times the charge from ordinary stun guns was needed to electrocute the heart of even the smallest pigs studied.

Taser said Webster is well-qualified to study the devices, which it says are safe. The company says Tasers are being used by more than 7,000 law enforcement, military and correctional agencies in the world.

“We welcome Professor Webster’s research as it can provide continued independent research concerning the safety of our life-saving Taser technology,” said company spokesman Steve Tuttle.

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