'Shocking' animal welfare violations uncovered at U.S. government labs

WASHINGTON, USA – Mice baked to death after a heating system failure, or left to die from hunger and thirst when researchers forgot to put food or water in their cages for a week – and nobody noticed. (READ: Weight loss for man, big balls for mice?)

Primates kept in a room where the lights were on 24-hours-a-day for nearly 5 months because a facility manager was said to be overworked.

A vet who failed to provide any care to a female owl monkey used for breeding after she became seriously ill and lost a fifth of her bodyweight, eventually succumbing to heart failure, fluid in the chest, and abdominal hemorrhage. 

These are among a litany of animal welfare failures that took place across a 22-month period from January 2018 to October 2019 at the laboratories of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the taxpayer-funded steward of medical and behavioral research of the United States. (READ: Ethical veganism is a protected belief – UK judge)

A total of 31 internally reported incidents have come to light thanks to a freedom of information request made by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and shared exclusively with AFP.

They took place at a variety of centers performing research in areas including diabetes, child health, mental health, and more – mostly out of Bethesda, Maryland but some at a facility in Hamilton, Montana.

In a statement, the NIH said it took all "noncompliance" incidents seriously and all of them had been thoroughly investigated by its Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), while changes to procedures had been made as a result.

But animal rights groups, including those that, unlike PETA, are not ideologically opposed to all animal testing, blasted the violations as egregious.

"The laws and regulations exist to minimize animal suffering, pain, stress, and when even those minimal standards are not being addressed or not being followed, then you have significant suffering," said Eric Kleiman, a researcher at the Animal Welfare Institute.

"Training, veterinary care, food, water: this is the most basic of basics. If you can't do this kind of thing right you have no business doing anything with animals, it's as simple as that," he added,  calling the findings "shocking."

Repeated failures  

From historic breakthroughs like the discovery of insulin through experiments on dogs, to the development last year of an Ebola treatment via work on genetically-modified mice, and cutting-edge cancer therapies, many scientists believe animal research is crucial to medical progress.

But the testing is supposed to take place under strict laws and policies spelling out its conditions, including the size of cages, room temperatures and the animals' social needs, as well as vet visits and the need for hygienic surgery and post-operative care.

Federal research facilities are subject to the Public Health Service (PHS) Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, which in turns mandates compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, a landmark law signed by former president Lyndon Johnson 1966.

Unlike labs in universities and private facilities, they are not subject to site inspections by the US Department of Agriculture and are meant to regulate themselves.

Yet the repeated violations of policy show that this system is inherently flawed, said Alka Chandna, PETA's vice president of laboratory investigations cases.

On no fewer than 5 occasions, mice starved or dehydrated to death because employees forgot to give them food or water. "The problem was not noted during the daily health checks," said one report from June 2018.

'What went right?'  

Other examples spoke to serial incompetence, said Chandna, including one where a dog sustained skin burns from an electric blanket used because the procedure room was too cold, but staff failed to monitor its use.

On another occasion, 13 mice baked to death after a heating system failure left them in 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) overnight.

In July 2018, an experimenter injected 15 zebrafish with a salt solution, even though this procedure had not been approved. Four of the zebrafish died immediately. 

Three weeks later, the procedure was repeated in 18 fish – even though the protocol had still not been approved. Eleven of these fish were euthanized and 7 were found dead. 

Few incidents led to serious repercussions: a facility manager who allowed primates to remain in a room with the lights on for 5 months was "counseled" and directed to monitor the lights daily, a report said in March 2018.

The vet who failed to attend to the owl monkey after having been notified by a vet technician that the animal was very sick was replaced, but it was not clear if they were fired or re-assigned.

Commenting on multiple surgeries that took place without regard to aseptic procedure or post-operative care – including on a primate – Kleiman said the question was not so much what had gone wrong as "what went right?"

Small percentage?  

Animal testing has broad backing from the scientific community even as some advocate for a transition to other forms of research, including computer modeling and test tube based studies in line with the so-called three R's: Replacement, Reduction and Refinement.

Paula Clifford, the executive director of Americans for Medical Progress that campaigns for animal research, said it was critical to place the new revelations in context.

"Given the size of the NIH and the very large number of animals it cares for, these incidents are actually quite rare and involve a very small percentage of the tens of thousands of animals involved in health research," she said.  

In its statement to AFP, the NIH said: "The incidents you have cited were thoroughly investigated by OLAW. The NIH intramural facilities have implemented numerous changes to prevent a recurrence."

"There are cases where something goes wrong (as in any enterprise) but it is identified, corrected, and evaluated by OLAW to ensure that the correction is appropriate for the problem," it added. – Rappler.com