Some federal officials are telling UW-Madison to change things if it wants to continue getting the money and operating its program.
A rare joint federal investigation of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's animal research program found multiple federal animal welfare violations, which could potentially compromise the program's funding.
One of two federal agencies that recently inspected UW-Madison's animal research program holds the purse strings to the hundreds of millions of federal dollars the program gets each year. And now some federal officials are telling UW-Madison to change things if it wants to continue getting that money and operating its program.
UW-Madison said its program is the second largest animal research program of its kind in the country, getting between $200 million and $300 million in federal funding each year.
Eric Sandgren, director of the UW Research Animal Resources Center, said
those federal dollars aren't going anywhere, but opinions vary over the
seriousness of the federal investigation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health's Office of Animal Welfare, or OLAW, sent a total of seven inspectors to UW-Madison earlier in December.
They spent up to two weeks looking at animal research facilities and procedures, and they found a slew of problems.
"It's a symptom of something very seriously wrong. This doesn't happen," says Rick Bogle, the co-director of the Alliance For Animals, which tracks UW animal research issues.
Bogle said he believes concerns from within the program prompted the unusual dual inspection.
"The fact that they came together and stayed for so long suggests, I
think unquestionably, that there's something really wrong going on with the
animal use at the university," Bogle said.
But the director of the UW Research Animal Resources Center disagrees.
"We passed the final exam, but we didn't get a hundred, and that's what we're working for," said Sandgren, who directs the group in charge of overseeing animal research.
Sandgren said the agencies simply felt it was time to do a comprehensive check and that OLAW needed to follow up on questions it had about UW-Madison's five-year renewal of its "public assurance" application for federal funding.
"Obviously, we took it very seriously. Their comments to us were that basically they thought we we're doing very well," Sandgren said.
WISC-TV found that the inspection by the USDA/APHIS alone prompted a 10-page report filled with 20 animal welfare violations.
Those violations range from animal care facilities with dirty air filters, flies and urine odors to problems with direct animal care and oversight.
One USDA oversight violation said a cardiac study on pigs had "insufficient detail to follow exactly what procedures will be done to the animals," including surgeries on the "liver, kidney and lung ... and external stimulation of brain tissues."
Another violation cited inadequate veterinary care for three dogs after kidney transplant surgery, despite them "not eating, vomiting" and having "depression, edema" and "not producing urine."
But some said the most disturbing violation found that in five animal studies the USDA looked at "There (was) nothing to indicate that the principal investigators (or PIs) had considered alternatives to potentially painful procedures," but that the oversight committee approved them anyway.
Bogle said that should concern the public.
"They're saying that the PIs aren't looking for alternatives to painful procedures and that the oversight committees don't care that they're not looking for alternatives to painful procedures. And that's pretty serious," Bogle said.
Bogle maintains that the USDA only looks at a few of the studies and that others could fall in the same category.
Sandgren said OLAW also wants UW-Madison to change the way it structures its oversight committees.
In order to keep the federal funding, UW-Madison has to better report issues to the federal government and remove the All Campus Animal Care and Use Committee of its ability to overrule the five other campus animal committees, WISC-TV reported.
There are a total of six committees now, and five defer decisions to the All Campus committee.
Now, each committee must be self-sufficient in its program review and corrections of any deficiencies.
Sandgren estimated there are roughly a 100,000 research animals on campus and that about 20,000 are not mice or rats -- ranging from beagles to sheep.
The Alliance For Animals said there are 1,200 studies being done.