Pitt faces animal rights scrutiny, Group calls for fines in research incidents

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Pitt faces animal rights scrutiny, Group calls for fines in research incidents

From Post-Gazette.com, Sunday, March 2, 2014

An animal rights group has filed a letter of complaint against the University of Pittsburgh, asking that the school be fined for violations against the federal Animal Welfare Act in its research labs.

The group, Stop Animal Exploitation Now, charges two rabbits died while being used in Pitt experiments and that there were several instances of primate escapes and other infractions, based on information Pitt voluntarily reported to the National Institutes of Health.

The group is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act, to fine Pitt $80,000 -- the maximum for what it counts as eight infractions.

Pitt acknowledges that "minor violations" occurred but said the violations already had been investigated by the NIH and that the agency did not find cause for further action.

"Although we strive for perfection in our highly regulated animal welfare program, occasionally sporadic deviations from either the complicated federal regulations and/or our own rigorous internal policies do occur," said Pitt spokesman Kenneth Service.

Mr. Service also noted the great advances that have come from animal research at Pitt -- including the polio vaccine and organ transplantation -- and that Stop Animal's expressed purpose includes "the elimination of the use of animals in biomedical research and testing."

Universities are asked to voluntarily report any animal research incidents that violate protocol to the National Institutes of Health when the animals are used in grants that are federally funded.

The NIH and the USDA do not regularly share information about violations in animal labs, said Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA. So even though the NIH knew about the incidents at Pitt, the USDA would not necessary know about those incidents for enforcement purposes.

The animal rights group obtained the information about the voluntary reports to NIH through Freedom of Information Act requests, said Michael Budkie, the Ohio-based group's executive director.

The USDA is looking into the complaint against Pitt, said Ms. Espinosa, and has not decided whether to open an investigation.

The incidents at Pitt include two rabbit deaths: one reported in July 2012, when a rabbit fell out of an improperly locked cage and was euthanized due to head trauma, and one reported in February 2013, when a rabbit was improperly transported and euthanized against the protocol in the investigator's study. Pitt fined the investigator in the 2013 case, among several other disciplinary actions taken by the university.

The other alleged infractions in the complaint include a graduate student who was bitten by a primate in April 2013. The graduate student had not been fully trained, was not wearing bite-resistant gloves and did not halt the experiment when the primate showed signs of agitation, as the protocol directed.

Other infractions in 2012 and 2013 described use of primates who were supposed to be confiscated from a study and several instances of primate escapes.

Ms. Espinosa said there have been instances in the past where animal research institutions have been fined by the USDA because of information brought by a third party. She was unsure whether disciplinary actions have occurred stemming from information the institution had already voluntarily reported elsewhere.

The federal agency does regular inspections of research facilities under the Animal Welfare Act. Pitt was cited for a noncompliance infraction in July 2013 involving animal enclosures, but it is not clear whether that covers one of the infractions the university self-reported to the NIH. It was not cited for any other infraction reported to the NIH.

The USDA does levy fines against universities for animal welfare violations, such as a $24,000 fine against Harvard University in December for violations that led to the deaths of four monkeys. 

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