Death of Vanderbilt research piglet upsets animal rights activists

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Death of Vanderbilt research piglet upsets animal rights activists

By Walter F. Roche, Jr.,, Thursday, January 9, 2014

The 2012 death of a piglet being used in a pediatric research project at Vanderbilt University Medical Center has reignited scrutiny of the Nashville health institution by animal rights activists.

The piglet, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection report, suffocated and died because of a failure by an outside contractor to reconnect an air supply system, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection report last September.

The death of the animal, which came to the attention of federal officials in a routine inspection, is the latest controversy to surface at the facility and has led critics of the use of animals in research to call for other federal action against the medical center, possibly including fines.

A USDA official said Vanderbilt had addressed the problem and no additional action was necessary.

According to the report based on the Sept. 9 inspection, the piglet was found dead in its container on July 12, 2012. The medical center, according to a series of published studies, used piglets in examining lung development problems in babies born prematurely.

“It was determined that the outside vendor supplying tanks did not reattach the newly replaced compressed air tank to the regulator,” the report states.

Disclosure of the death has prompted a Cincinnati advocacy group to call for fines to be imposed on the university.

“Clearly the situation at Vanderbilt is very serious,” said Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now.

In his statement, issued last month, Budkie cited prior citations at Vanderbilt, including fines imposed in 2010 relating to the deaths of six animals.

Vanderbilt officials dismissed Budkie’s comments by noting that his organization opposes the use of any animal in human research projects. John Howser, a Vanderbilt spokesman, said Budkie’s organization’s “sole mission is to stop the use of animals in research.”

“The reality is most lifesaving procedures and medications in use today, for both humans and animals, would not have been possible without the ability to conduct prior research and training in animals,” he added.

Corrective measures

Published research studies by Vanderbilt medical researchers show that piglets were used during the same time period as the death in a study into the breathing difficulties of prematurely born infants.

“The use of an animal model in this context is helping answer complex questions about how to address life-threatening deficits to lung development in babies that are born prematurely,” Howser said, though he never explicitly acknowledged that the death was connected to the study.

A USDA spokesman, Michael Booth, said Vanderbilt had undertaken corrective measures after the incident and the agency planned no further action.

He noted that those measures included the installation of a backup tank and signage warning against unauthorized personnel disconnecting the air supply.

Past findings involving Vanderbilt animal research include a 2012 USDA report citing a primate that suffered a fractured tibia. The animal was euthanized.

The same report cited the university for research animals being left without water for up to 48 hours.

A 2011 report cited the university for having a researcher who was not listed as an approved surgeon performing brain surgery on a research animal. The animal suffered immediate complications requiring additional procedures, according to the report.

In 2010 Vanderbilt was hit with an $8,156 fine after a Galago monkey was tossed into a washer along with some bedding. The monkey died. Vanderbilt was also cited at the same time in the death of five hamsters after they were injected with an improperly mixed chemical.

Howser, Vanderbilt’s assistant vice chancellor for news and communications, said the university “remains firmly committed to the highest standard of care and the most humane protocols for all animals necessary to conduct research and training.” 

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