Actress Lily Tomlin takes on Ford over child crash tests using dead pigs

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Actress Lily Tomlin, noting her Detroit roots as a stand-up comedian, wrote Ford Motor Co. last week to say its past funding of crash test research using dead pigs is "not cool."

Tomlin sent the letter to Mary Wroten, Ford director of global sustainability and environmental, social and corporate governance, in support of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA first criticized the research project in October.

"When I heard from PETA that Ford had bankrolled a Wayne State University study using pigs in crash tests, I was deflated," Tomlin said in the letter to Ford, dated June 27. "I thought those bleak days were in the rearview mirror, and hearing that they are recurring is like suffering backlash."

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Lily Tomlin is this year's recipient of AARP The Magazine’s Movies for Grownups® Awards Career Achievement Award.
Lily Tomlin is this year's recipient of AARP The Magazine’s Movies for Grownups® Awards Career Achievement Award.

What was the study? 

The 19-page study, published in 2018 by Wayne State University in Detroit, involved biomedical and auto safety engineers who used 27 pigs to better understand potential crash impact on small children. Data was then compared with previous, similar studies to explore orthopedic trauma and safety protocols. Researchers put the pigs to death before testing began.

Tomlin said in her letter that she "recently learned" of the study and pointed out that the study's authors specifically thanked Ford for funding.

"That's not cool," Tomlin said. "I fully support PETA's demand that Ford stop equivocating and adopt a clear public policy not to fund, conduct, commission or support animal testing unless it is explicitly required by law. ... I hope to hear soon that Ford Motor Company has publicly adopted a compassionate, animal-free testing policy."

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Ford's response: Animals used only in 'rare exceptions'

Ford wondered why this issue was being raised again, after the letter last year, and emphasized the company isn't involved in any animal testing.

"Ford’s practice is not to use animals for safety testing nor to ask or provide funding to others to do so on our behalf," spokesman T.R. Reid said. "Rare exceptions would include testing that’s required by law or where there isn’t an acceptable alternative for critical safety research. The study at Wayne State University, which was funded nearly a decade ago and completed in 2017, was an example of the latter.

"That work, using a minimal number of swine cadavers and conducted following the university’s ethics protocols, was necessarily part of developing enhanced test dummies simulating children, to make kids safer in side-impact collisions. We don’t presently use animal cadavers in research or intend to in the future, and will continue to lead in developing research methods that don’t rely on animal tissue of any kind."

Why were pigs used in the crash test?

Child-size crash test dummies have limitations, and pigs have been used to test crash effects on organs and other aspects of child-size bodies.

"(U)sing animal surrogate test data is valuable, and may lead to the development of new or improved scaling relationships," the study says. Researchers sought "appropriate size cadaveric porcine surrogates of human 3-year-old, 6-year-old, 10-year-old, and 50th percentile male age equivalence."

Lily Tomlin elaborates

PETA asked Tomlin to write the letter because "she cares deeply about the use and abuse of animals in experiments," said Moira Colley, PETA spokeswoman.

The Detroit Free Press submitted questions to Tomlin about the study underwritten by Ford and her feelings about animal advocacy. PETA returned her replies by email:

  • "I was horrified to hear about it from PETA in May because I abhor cruelty to animals and always thought highly of Ford."

  • "I am a PETA honorary board member and have appreciated their work to stop all sorts of cruelties to animals, for a long, long time."

  • "Kindness is a virtue and animals need all the kindness they can get."

Tomlin referred to use of animals in medical research as "totally unacceptable, archaic, and unresponsive to today’s consumers."

Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Dabney Coleman starred in the workplace comedy "9 to 5," released in 1980.
Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Dabney Coleman starred in the workplace comedy "9 to 5," released in 1980.

Tomlin, who was born in Detroit, attended Wayne State in 1960-62. She received an honorary doctorate in fine arts in 1988.

Tomlin has won Tony, Emmy and Grammy awards for her work on Broadway, on television and in recording.

She is known by older TV viewers for her little girl character Edith Ann, and Ernestine – "one ringy dingy, two ringy dingy" – the telephone operator on the iconic "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" that ran 1968-73. Audiences flocked to see "9 to 5" with Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda in 1980. Younger fans know Tomlin as Frankie, playing opposite Fonda in "Grace and Frankie," on Netflix since 2015.

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard at 313-618-1034 or phoward@freepress.com. 

USA TODAY Money editor Randy Essex contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Lily Tomlin attacked Ford over old crash tests using dead pigs