Feds 'looking into' University of Michigan's animal research after baboon's fatal strangling

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Feds 'looking into' University of Michigan's animal research after baboon's fatal strangling

By Kellie Woodhouse, MLive.com, Wednesday, March 5, 2014

An unauthorized guinea pig surgery and the accidental strangulation of a baboon are two of four animal research incidents at the University of Michigan that the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to review.

During the 2012-13 academic year, a baboon strangled itself when left unattended with a toy, a researcher performed an unapproved emergency surgery on a guinea pig and a hamster escaped from its cage and was found dead in a drain.

All incidents involved animals used for research at U-M's Ann Arbor campus, and each was reported by U-M to the National Institutes of Health.

U-M could face fines up to $40,000 if the USDA finds researchers mistreated the lab animals.

The USDA is 'looking into' the incidents after animal rights group Stop Animal Exploitation Now!, which opposes animal use in research, filed a complaint with the department in February.

"It's very clear that these incidents are violations of the Animal Welfare Act," said Michael Budkie, co-founder of the organization that filed the complaint. "You have laboratories that don't seem to even be able to keep the animals alive, follow their own protocols or adhere to their own basic husbandry standards."

USDA spokesperson Tanya Espinosa confirmed the complaint and said the department is looking into whether U-M violated the Animal Welfare Act and deciding whether to investigate further.

"We are looking into this," Espinosa wrote in an email. "If we determine there were Animal Welfare Act noncompliances we may decide to open an investigation at that time. There is no timeframe as we want to ensure we are as thorough as possible."

Kara Gavin, a spokeswoman for U-M, said the school self-reported the incidents to the NIH because they violated the institutes' policy on the Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.

She explained that a university committee on the use and care of research animals meets to discuss animal welfare cases, including deaths, and then decides whether to forward an incident to NIH, which funds more than $500 million in research at the school each year.

U-M reports between four to six incidents of non-compliance a year, and the USDA has reviewed animal research at the school before — although Gavin said that the school has not been fined for animal mistreatment in at least 23 years.

"This is the product of U-M having a very strong oversight function," Gavin said.

U-M houses 247,000 animals in research facilities, and about 320 are mammals other than rodents, according to school figures.

Gavin said the school will fully comply with a USDA investigation.

In January 2013 a baboon that was being studied as part of a project on vascular disease was alone with a toy when it strangled itself and was later discovered, already dead, by a researcher.

Researchers reevaluated the toys used by primates in the lab and nixed the toy the baboon was using. The incident was reported to the NIH by phone in February and by letter in September.

In August 2012, a researcher performed an unauthorized surgery on a guinea pig that went into respiratory distress during a research project. The researcher had been given permission to use the animal during research, but the approval did not include a provision for emergency surgery.

Although the surgery was successful, medicine given to the animal made it ineligible for future research and it was euthanized, Gavin said. The study was later given permission to perform emergency surgeries on other guinea pigs in the project, and the researcher had to take a surgery course and meet with a compliance worker at U-M.

Two other incidents reported during the 2012-13 year include a hamster that died in July after escaping from its cage and drowning in a floor drain. U-M subsequently changed the type of water drains located in areas that house rodents used for research.

The other incident occurred in December 2011 but was reported to NIH in July 2012. It involved a rabbit that escaped after a routine surgery, burned itself and needed emergency surgery. 

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