Animal activists issue complaint
Animal activists issue complaint
By Dave Ingram The Chronicle 7/18/01
An Ohio-based animal rights and research watchdog group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture last month, alleging that 50 major research universities, including Duke, have violated the federal Animal Welfare Act. But Duke administrators and researchers are standing behind their work, arguing their work complies fully with the act.
Stop Animal Exploitation Now! compared laboratories' federally mandated self-reports on animal research with their research journal articles to assess how well universities are reporting their animal testing. In its complaint filed June 13, SAEN said that the laboratories involved withheld information from government agencies and have unnecessarily abused animals--specifically primates--by physically restraining them or denying them food and water.
"Obviously this is the type of thing we believe the Animal Welfare Act is meant to prevent," said Michael Budkie, executive director of SAEN, an organization he described as a small activist group.
Although the USDA receives several hundred animal abuse complaints each year--all of which must be investigated--the size of this case makes it unique, said Ron DeHaven, department administrator in the USDA's Animal Care Division. Because of the number of universities cited, the USDA's impending investigation and on-site visits will likely take several months.
DeHaven explained that there are three levels of animal use in research: experiments with minimal distress, experiments with the potential for distress but using pain relievers and experiments with the potential for distress without medication. Detailed regulations in the Animal Welfare Act govern animals' specific care.
"There must be justification for moving to different levels [of use]," he said.
Budkie named one faculty member in particular, Associate Professor of Neurobiology Miguel Nicolelis, as unnecessarily harming primates and violating federal reporting standards. Nicolelis' study, "Simultaneous encoding of tactile information by three primate cortical areas," published in the November 1998 issue of Nature Neuroscience, employed restraints of primates in the study's methods.
Nicolelis defended his research, however, calling the animals he uses "extremely well treated" and questioning SAEN's believability.
"I think we should take a hard look at the credibility of organizations making these complaints," he said. "I have no idea why they are making these complaints. Everything we do is supervised by the Duke animal rights committee and follows all the federal regulations involved."
All laboratory research involving live vertebrates must be reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, composed mainly of faculty and administrators. Each year, Duke's Division of Laboratory Animal Research must also provide the USDA with records of how many animals were used and in what capacities.
Richard Rahija, the division's director, expressed concern about the complaint but said that his reports have been accurate. Any contradiction with journal articles results mainly from a misunderstanding by SAEN, he said.
"It's not illegal in an experiment to allow [animals to be in] pain," he said. "I dutifully reported that in two cases last year the animal review committee approved experiments that involved food and water restriction, a very common technique in research. What [SAEN] failed to state was that we gave [the animals] full access to water after the experiment."
Rahija added that journal articles do not always fully explain an experiment's methods and therefore can misleadingly differ from reports provided to the USDA.
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