BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: Animal ethicists cite Wilson Hall's research lab By Allie Diffendal - Vanderbilt Orbis - 2 Oct 2007
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: Animal ethicists cite Wilson Hall's research lab
By Allie Diffendal - Vanderbilt Orbis - 2 Oct 2007
In 2006, an anonymous white envelope made its way to the Nashville offices of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Inside was a copy of an e-mail from Maggie McTighe, a clinical veterinarian in Vanderbilt's Animal Care division, dated July 26, 2006, to her colleagues with the subject line "surgical update." The internal e-mail was a reminder from Vanderbilt's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee that "when craniotomies are done, these are done always under anesthesia." Accompanying the e-mail was a letter from an anonymous whistleblower: "Until last month, Jeffrey D. Schall, Ph.D, of Vanderbilt University performed craniotomies on anesthetized, fully awake primates. The enclosed e-mail is from veterinarian Maggie McTighe 'reminding' investigators to anesthetize monkeys before drilling into their skulls."
To understand the lab's run-in with federal animal welfare laws in recent years, one must revisit September 2004, when documents obtained by PETA first linked the university's lab to unlawful recklessness. A Vanderbilt University Medical Center letter to the acting director of the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare describes three incidents involving "animal welfare compliance problems," two of which identified Jeffrey Schall as the principal offender. The first incident involved an unauthorized surgery on a nonhuman primate, fluid restriction (water was withheld from the primate), and inefficient chair sanitation (reportedly, the chair used for operation was covered in feces) - all of which resulted in Schall's suspension from experimental procedures for one month and a required attendance at two training sessions on animal care regulations.
The letter continues to describe a second incident a month later in which "the scientist had threatened the (Division of Animal Care) technician if he continued to report animal health and welfare information to the veterinarians." The threat came after the DAC technician reported a struggle of a macaque monkey whose collar had caught on the cage floor. As the Vanderbilt letter affirms, "The IACUC decided not to take further action. Instead (Schall) received a written warning."
While the IACUC issues the paper equivalent of slaps on the wrist to lawbreakers, United States Department of Agriculture reports on animal abuse are rapidly increasing. As evidenced by the USDA reports, not only have more violations accumulated over time, but certain past violations have never even been addressed, indicating the lab has not taken the proper steps to prevent future problems. In the May 2005 USDA report, violations included procedures without the use of any aseptic, deviation from approved protocols, use of expired drugs, failure to adhere to the university's environmental enrichment policies and a lack of hydration for a room housing squirrel monkeys - the latter resulting in the euthanasia of one monkey after he collapsed from dehydration. Water was shut off to the monkey's room March 15. The monkey was found on March 21 - six days later. Though this report totaled an appalling 13 violations, the one following it added several more violations to the lab's record.
The January 2006 USDA report, noticeably longer than the 2005 report, discussed an array of previous violations along with entirely new ones: improper data logs, inadequate records of anesthesia use prior to the use of paralytics and harmful enclosures. Poor record keeping resulted in a lack of water for certain animals. The inspection report reads, "At the time of the inspection 10 to 15 water bottles were completely empty, however, the room log sheet for this date showed that the room caretaker has signed off that water bottles had been refilled for the day." Harmful enclosures cited in the report resulted in the need to resuscitate one dog after it hung itself by its collar, to remove another's paw from an entanglement and to dislodge a third whose gums got caught in an old hook.
In July 2006, the number of violations rose to 19. The report showed inadequate training and qualification of lab personnel, body fluid and feces-infected tables and transport carts, inadequately sized cages and food receptacles and cages covered in feces, along with previously cited violations. As Durham affirmed, "For me, and I think for a lot of people, things like having water or not being forced to sit in a chair that is covered in feces are bare minimum standards. … We're talking [about] matters of life and death."
A Sept. 19 news advisory from Stop Animal ExploitationNow brings the case full-circle. The article, titled "Vanderbilt Negligence Kills Laboratory Animals; Federal Violations Soaring," discusses SAEN's recent custody of this year's federal laboratory reports revealing the lab's recent animal mortality rates. The USDA reports they obtained expose the death of a rabbit when run through a cage washer and the death of three cotton rats due to "improper handling" in January 2007. According to SAEN's executive director, "This negligence demonstrates that Vanderbilt is clearly a facility which should not be allowed to perform animal experiments."
However, SAEN's desire to close Vanderbilt's facility seems full of false hopes: Not only is the lab's license firmly in tact, but the facility is in the process of expansion. The construction project, located atop the Vanderbilt Institute for Imaging Science, will house three floors of space totaling 21,000 square feet. PETA, wary of this "vast and troubling expansion," in 2006 expressed concerns to then-Chancellor Gordon Gee "asking for a moratorium on the construction of new animal facilities until Vanderbilt evidences significant improvements in its animal care program." The moratorium was not granted. and Durham continues to articulate unease, describing the expansion as "terrifying" in light of Vanderbilt's "failing" oversight system.
John Howser, assistant director of the Medical Center's Office of News and Public Affairs, said, "The construction represents the fact we are upgrading our existing facilities, and also investing in new facilities which will greatly improve the quality of care provided to our research animals."
The question is: Will fancy new facilities cure experimenters' negligence? Experience and common sense dictate they will not, but let's hope that is not the case. The fact is the laboratory has run far afoul of animal welfare laws in recent years. As concerned members of Vanderbilt community, we must be able to hold research accountable to the law as well as to ethical scrutiny.
If the lab cannot behave for the two days of its federal inspections, one must wonder what occurs on the other 363 days of the year. The overall pattern of the laboratory's past violations does not suggest a desire to improve the record of abuse.
As Durham said, "At some point, we all have to agree that the answer has to be 'no more.'"
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