USDA to look into the deaths of 15 primates

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USDA to look into the deaths of 15 primates

By Nicholas Persac, The, Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A national animal rights group says the deaths of 15 primates during the past two years at the New Iberia Research Center paints a picture of an irresponsible and unethical facility, but officials who run the center argue those claims are overstated.

Stop Animal Exploitation Now! director Michael Budkie wants a federal investigation into the New Iberia Research Center, but the center's director, Thomas Rowell, says a November inspection prompted by an earlier complaint found it met all federal standards.

U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman Dave Sacks confirmed Tuesday that his organization will send a team of federal inspectors to "conduct a focused inspection" into the trauma deaths of 11 primates at the New Iberia facility.

That inspection, however, could take a "significant period of time" since the complaints span as far back as 2010, Sacks said in an email to The Daily Advertiser.

The USDA is also already investigating the deaths of four other monkeys in two separate incidents at the facility — one case in which three monkeys died in a chute and a second case in which a chimpanzee died while being shipped to Louisiana.

Sacks said he could not comment further on those two investigations because both are ongoing.

During a news conference in Lafayette on Tuesday morning, Budkie said he filed a complaint with the USDA this past year after lab workers there found three dead Resus monkeys in May.

Budkie said he wasn't sure if his complaint prompted the November investigation because other organizations are also interested in the facility and may have filed a complaint comparable to his own. Rowell, however, said during a phone interview on Tuesday morning that Budkie's initial complaint did prompt the November investigation.

Now, in a March 23 complaint, Budkie lists the deaths of 11 primates, each caused by trauma, between May 2010 and March 2011 as cause for federal inspectors to return to the facility.

"The number of animals he's reported relative to the overall number of animals on site is statistically insignificant and relatively small," Rowell said.

Budkie said he used a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain an entire USDA database that tracks primate care. In those records, Budkie not only found the 11 trauma deaths but also two reports showing the federal government is pursuing two serious investigations into the New Iberia facility.

The document show, like Sacks said, that one federal investigation will delve into the death of the three Resus monkeys this past year, and the second investigation will involve the death of a chimpanzee that was being brought to New Iberia from a lab in Maryland by the Opelousas transport company Stone Oak Farms and Transport.

"This is not a picture of a competent and qualified facility," Budkie said. "The fact that these cases are in the database means the USDA is pursuing a major investigation, and it's very likely fines will be issued."

Budkie said the two cases could bring a total of about $90,000 in fines.

Budkie also found in the documents an indication that a primate escaped its enclosure, but he said the incident went unreported elsewhere.

Budkie couldn't say if the escape would have been from the whole facility or just from an individual cage, and Rowell did not know the details of the escape but believed it to be a minor violation.

Rowell said he believes the facility will likely avoid being fined for both the chimpanzee that died during transit and the primate that escaped, but he noted the final decision rests with USDA officials.

Rowell said that while one chimpanzee his center owned died during transportation from Maryland to Louisiana, another three monkeys in the same shipment "arrived here just fine."

A pathologist who reviewed the chimpanzee's death founded the animal died from a type of severe allergic reaction, Rowell said. That pathologist, however, was not able to determine what triggered the reaction, he said.

The three Resus monkeys found dead in a cage's chute, however, will almost surely bring the facility a fine.

"We're obviously accountable for the death of those animals, and we fully expect to be fined by the USDA," Rowell said.

Rowell said that Resus monkeys, which account for the bulk of the facility's 6,000 non-human primates, are naturally aggressive animals. He attributed the 11 trauma incidents to natural violence and said those incidents would happen anywhere.

He said even though USDA inspectors will come to the facility in response to Budkie's complaint about those 11 trauma deaths, he doesn't expect the USDA to levy a federal fine.

"We just think that's part of the business," Rowell said.

Babette Fontenot, the facility's head of behavior sciences, said the facility takes a small risk by housing multiple Resus monkeys in the same enclosure but does so because the animals are also social and would endure psychological harm if housed individually.

"We try to minimize those injuries, but obviously that can't be 100 percent avoided," Fontenot said. "It's for the psychological well being that we keep them in groups, and unfortunately, as a result of keeping them in a natural environment, this happens."

Fontenot said a 4-5 percent mortality rate is generally accepted as reasonable for primate populations living in captive.

"Anytime you maintain a population of animals, some are born and die each year," she said.

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