UW lab animal chief cries ‘foul’ over activist tactics to expose monkey care violations

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UW lab animal chief cries "foul" over activist tactics to expose monkey care violations

By Pat Schneider, Madison.com, Friday, November 14, 2014 

Anyone interested the use of animals in research at UW-Madison can now go to its animal research page and read about incidents involving the escape of 36 primates, deaths of three monkeys and burning of another that brought four citations this fall for failing to comply with USDA standards.

But that’s only because of the work of an Ohio-based animal rights group with tactics that Eric Sandgren, director of UW’s Research Animal Resources Center, says are “inappropriate.”

Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! uses the federal Freedom of Information Act to access reports on lab animal care violations by animal research facilities in the files of the National Institutes of Health and then reports them to the USDA, which is required by law to investigate. SAEN – and the university — made the USDA action public in September, after the Research Animal Resources Center’s unsuccessful appeal of the regulatory agency’s finding.

Sandgren says that SAEN’s tactics are inappropriate because they use information provided by the lab animal facility against it. “Two things about that don’t seem right to us,” Sandgren said in an interview. “This is self-incrimination and double jeopardy, and the complaints had to do with extremely infrequent events.”

The center had reported the incidents, which occurred in 2012 and 2103, to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare of the NIH, Sandgren said. That office, which has no enforcement authority, but can withdraw research funding, took no action against the center.

The NIH office and the USDA have a memo of understanding to share information, but the two agencies have different enforcement mechanisms and may handle incidents differently, the NIH said this year in a letter about SAEN’s activities.

Michael Budkie, co-founder and executive director of SAEN, says that UW and Sandgren are “simply upset because they got caught with their pants down.”

“The public has a right to know what takes place inside animal labs because these facilities are publicly funded, so we use FOIA to obtain all relevant information,” Budkie wrote in an email message. “If the public is to make an informed decision on the usefulness of animal experimentation, then the people of the U.S. need to see how shoddily it is performed. “

Animal labs typically make statements about how stringently they are regulated and how much they care about the animals, Budkie said. “But when they are caught violating the law, then they want to cry foul because they are being hung with their own paperwork?”

The USDA has not fined UW for the instances of non-compliance cited in the September report, but Budkie argues they are significant violations.

“I have never seen another facility listed with 36 primate escapes in little over a year’s time, and situations where primates are being killed through negligence also are rare,” Budkie said.

Sandgren pointed out that the escape of the animals from their enclosures occurred in the process of more than 91,000 transfers. The USDA report says that five incidents led to significant injury to the animal.

Other incidents include the improper use of an anesthesia machine that led to the death of a 5-year-old marmoset; the burning of a macaque with a heat lamp; and the deaths of two young macaques in incidents a year apart after their heads got caught in chains attached to an enrichment device on a cage.

The USDA noted that human error was involved in several of the incidents, but says that appropriate corrective actions were taken in all cases.

USDA fined UW more than $35,000 in March for other violations of animal research treatment standards between 2007 and 2013. The university released information about that settlement, but less serious incidents of noncompliance typically are not made public.

“In general, we do not post the letter we send to OLAW,” Sandgren said. “We’re so used to how grossly misrepresented those things are.”

Sandgren said that a watchdog group that would bring to light errors that a lab animal facility missed, and was “careful with its facts, honest and provides context, then that is a very valuable thing. None of that is true for SAEN.”

He repeated: “None of this was identified by anybody but us,” adding that participating with the USDA investigation cost tens of thousands of dollars.

In another effort to make records about research lab animals public, the Animal Legal Defense Fund is suing the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents for notes made during deliberations of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee on controversial experiments with baby monkeys at UW-Madison it approved this fall.

Budkie says that SAEN is only doing what typically happens to bring animal mistreatment cases to light – making a report to the appropriate law enforcement agency. “How is that different from a private individual contacting a humane officer when a second private individual is seen committing animal cruelty?”

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