Princeton finds no sign of lab torment; Group doubts impartiality of university probe of monkey abuse

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Princeton finds no sign of lab torment; Group doubts impartiality of university probe of monkey abuse

By Carmen Cusido,, Thursday, April 5, 2012

An internal investigation by Princeton University has found no evidence of wrongdoing in its animal testing lab, but an animal rights organization that has alleged mistreatment there said the school’s investigation lacks credibility.

Last September, a whistle-blower leaked graphic photographs and an eyewitness account of alleged mistreatment and killings by Princeton University’s Primate Neuroethology Laboratory. The complaint detailed the lives of monkeys who were deprived of water and kept in unsecured cages, a situation that led to injury and euthanization of some animals. One leaked report described a primate being “clubbed with a hockey stick by a researcher and a student.”

The Cincinnati-based rights group Stop Animal Exploitation Now, or SAEN, made the allegations at the end of September 2011.

In an e-mail yesterday, Princeton University spokesman Martin Mbugua said the investigation was launched immediately after the allegations were made.

“The investigation was conducted by a subcommittee of the University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which is at the top of the multitiered system employed by the University to provide oversight for the welfare of animals used in all research and educational activities,” Mbugua said.

As part of its report, the IACUC subcommittee recommended that Princeton continue to enhance its animal research and care program through regular assessments of issues such as operating procedures, veterinarian involvement, ethical obligations, regulatory requirements, record keeping and environmental enrichments, according to a statement published on the Princeton University website. The investigation found that some of the allegations had no factual basis, while others were either descriptions of events that made no reference to any noncompliant condition or presented distorted or incomplete information, according to the statement on the Princeton website.

In a phone interview, Michael Budkie, co-founder and executive director of SAEN, said: “Having their own employees investigate whether they were treating animals humanely does not have any credibility because these are the people who were involved in this situation to begin with.”

SAEN monitors animal experiments nationwide, and although it does not rank violators, Budkie has said Princeton University’s track record is “among the worst” in violating animal welfare laws.

“If you ask most criminals if they’re criminals if they’re guilty or not guilty, of course they’ll say they’re not guilty. The photographs we’ve been given don’t lie,” Budkie said.
Late last year, SAEN aired 30-second commercial spots that showed flashes of images of primates placed in research devices with bolts in their skulls.

Dave Sacks, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the federal agency typically sends an inspector when there is a complaint.

Speaking in general and not about Princeton specifically, Sacks said an inspector never announces when he or she is coming. “When we go, they have to give us access to look at physical facility and other records,” Sacks said.

For example, inspectors look to see if cages are adequately constructed, whether or not the animals are given a proper diet and that the staff is familiar with how to handle the species.

“If there is something that’s going on, we want to know about it,” Sacks said. “If we go out there and the allegations are not substantiated, then that’s a done deal.”

According to the university, the investigation included examinations of research and medical records as well as interviews with relevant research and animal care staff.

University representatives also communicated with the Department of Agriculture and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to ensure that federal regulations were met.

Princeton University’s license and registration with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been active since 1967.

The USDA’s website lists Princeton’s recent inspections. During the last USDA inspection on Nov. 29, 2011, there were no noncompliance citations. During a June 7, 2011, USDA visit, the agency cited an issue when a marmoset escaped from its cage. In June 2010, the university was cited for 13 procedural violations during a routine inspection of the primate research facility, including insufficient water levels for animals and insufficient painkillers following surgeries.

Princeton University has strengthened oversight of animal research by hiring additional regulatory compliance personnel, increasing training for IACUC members and investigators, and developing new guidelines, policies and procedures across several areas of the program, including facility sanitation, the use of pharmaceutical agents, the use of personal protective equipment, animal handling and animal health monitoring, according to a statement posted on the university’s website.

In the past, Mbugua has defended his belief in animal research like that conducted at Princeton, saying it leads to breakthroughs that benefit not only people, but also the environment and other animal species.

Princeton University is not the only institution that has come under scrutiny for its primate practices lately. Last month a monkey died at Bristol-Myers Squibb’s New Brunswick lab after it was left restrained and unattended, according to an inspection report from the Department of Agriculture.

And last Juy, a crab-eating macaque died at Bristol-Myers’ Pennington lab when its cage was run through the wash cycle, The Star-Ledger reported last month. The dirty cage was moved to the wash room for sanitization and submerged in near-boiling water with the monkey still inside. When the cage was pulled from the wash, the monkey was dead, the inspection report said. 

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