UAF to pay $127,000 fine to settle with feds over musk oxen deaths

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UAF to pay $127,000 fine to settle with feds over musk oxen deaths

By Sam Friedman,, Wednesday, June 11, 2014

FAIRBANKS—The University of Alaska Fairbanks has agreed to a $127,100 settlement over the 2010 die-off of 12 musk oxen at the school's Large Animal Research Station.

Twelve musk oxen, a third of the herd, died or were euthanized between August 2010 and February 2011 at the Yankovich Road research station.

Based on the results of a 2011 investigation, in March of this year the U.S.

Department of Agriculture formally accused the university of failing to provide the animals with needed nutrients, in violation of the federal Animal Welfare Act. The dead musk oxen were "emaciated," according to the USDA's investigation, and several had deficits of necessary minerals such as copper and cobalt. The federal agency also accused the university of allowing a student to get into a moose enclosure in 2011 where the student was kicked and with letting a reindeer get its antlers caught up in wire.

As of this spring's calving, the Large Animal Research Station has 19 musk oxen. It's also home to caribou and reindeer.

USDA regulators gave the facility a clean bill of health in 2012, said University of Alaska Fairbanks Attending Veterinarian John Blake. The university has made changes since the die-off, including changing the nutritional supplements the animals receive. It's also reorganized employees to separate research and animal-care staff, he said.

No university employees were fired as a result of the die off, university spokeswoman Marmian Grimes said.

Although agreeing to pay the fine, the university does not admit to the specific violations listed by the USDA, according to the written settlement, which was received by the USDA on Thursday.

The research station did make mistakes in its record-keeping and in over-reliance on student workers, Blake said. But he said, in an interview Tuesday at the research station that he objects to the USDA's accusation that the musk oxen died of "starvation." The animals had access to all the hay they wanted but died from an "imbalance of minerals," he said.

Blake has overseen veterinary care for university animals since 1988.

He also said the USDA unfairly accused the university of failing to seek treatment for the oxen until February 2011. As early as September 2010, the research station had consulted a veterinarian in Washington state and in October the vet came for a site visit, he said.

"We had been working on these animals quite a bit. The implication that we had not been providing adequate veterinary care until February 2011 was a little hard to swallow," Blake said.

The university decided to settle because contesting the allegations would have required hiring a specialized attorney for a hearing before a USDA judge in Washington, D.C. It would have been more expensive than paying the fine, Grimes said. If the university had contested the issue and lost, it could have faced as much as $4.5 million in fines, she said.

"We decided it was in the best interest of the university to go ahead and settle this," she said.

News of the settlement was welcomed by anti animal experimentation advocate Michael Budkie of Milford, Ohio. Budkie, the executive director of the group Stop Animal Exploitation NOW, monitors USDA investigations. He urged the agency to sanction UAF more severely in 2011 after hearing about the death of the animals.

Budkie said Tuesday that he's only heard of one other fine larger than $127,100. In general the USDA has been issuing more fines and larger fines in recent years, he said.

"I think this is one of the more appropriate fines we've seen in recent years," he said.

"They (USDA regulators) have escalated their fines to the level that, at least in this instance, and we hope in others, it is going to be sufficient to compel laboratories to change the way they're treating animals." 

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