As lab animal mishaps mount, advocacy groups say Oregon is worst offender
A prominent animal welfare advocacy group is crying foul over repeated violations and mishaps at Oregon animal research facilities.
Legacy Research Institute and Oregon Health & Science University are the targets of recent criticism from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Legacy Research Institute recently was cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees animal testing centers, for a "critical violation" of federal animal welfare laws. Legacy keeps a dozen primates for research, according to 2020 documents. The USDA is responsible for monitoring adherence to the Animal Welfare Act.
The violation report, which was obtained and disseminated by PETA, shows a USDA inspection occurred on Sept. 23, following an animal that died when anesthesia was improperly administered.
"During the procedure, a problem with respirations was noted. It was discovered that during setup system checks of the anesthesia machine, the popoff valve was left closed," the USDA inspection report notes. A post-pressure check was missed, causing a monkey to sustain fatal pressure-related trauma to its lungs.
"The monkey experienced difficulty breathing and eventually endured what must have been a painful and distressing death," a PETA statement on the incident reads.
A statement from Legacy Health notes the research center was "found in compliance" with regulations after taking appropriate action following the incident. The health care institution also noted the USDA conducted a re-inspection on Sept. 30 "and found no non-compliant items."
Legacy Health's citation isn't the first time a monkey has died in a research lab due to an oversight during anesthesia.
In 2014, inspection reports show a female Japanese macaque died after a pop-off valve on an anesthesia machine was left closed by mistake at OHSU's National Primate Research Center. The facility's anesthesia machines were modified afterward to prevent further incidents.
While PETA officials said they were surprised to learn of the mishap at Legacy, largely because of the facility's small size, the latest animal death follows a string of incidents at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, operated by OHSU. The primate research center houses roughly 5,000 primates for biomedical research. It's one of two animal research sites OHSU maintains. Mice, sheep, pigs and rodents also are used for research.
Addressing criticism from animal welfare groups, OHSU animal care experts said mistakes do happen, despite what they called rigorous oversight protocols.
"We have a fairly robust oversight program," said Vickie Jarrell, director of OHSU's animal care and use program. Jarrell said OHSU has "over 400 standard operating procedures" and is subject to oversight from the USDA, the National Institutes of Health and OHSU's own Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. The majority of OHSU's primate research center funding comes from the federal government, in the form of NIH grants. The latest available figures show OHSU received more than $340 million from the NIH in 2020, roughly half of which was earmarked for animal research.
Recently, OHSU has had a number of violations and mishaps at its animal research labs, including an incident where two live monkeys were boiled to death in 2020, after a technician put them through a high temperature cage washer by mistake.
That same year, USDA inspectors noted two marmosets were euthanized due to post-surgery infections in their brains. Prior to that, OHSU was issued an official warning from the USDA in 2015 following the death of a monkey who got caught in a chain in its cage. The year prior, an inspection report noted 21 rhesus macaques were hospitalized in 2014, six of which died, after fighting among the primate colony. Investigators believe the fighting and erratic behavior was likely triggered by noise and disruptions from heavy construction nearby. During that same 2014 visit, an inspector noted many of the monkeys were losing their hair, and cages contained muddy, unhygienic bedding. In 2012, OHSU was fined $11,680 by the USDA as part of a settlement agreement over violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
The string of incidents has led another advocacy and watchdog group, Stop Animal Exploitation Now! to call for OHSU's accreditation to be stripped. That group claims OHSU has "the worst record in the U.S. for violating federal animal laws and policies," noting 21 USDA violations from 2017 to 2021.
The USDA did not respond to questions or requests for comment.
The OHSU animal care team admits that a lack of staff follow-up training contributed to at least some of the issues in recent months that led to animal deaths.
But penalties and consequences are rare. In fact, animal research centers aren't subject to state animal cruelty laws.
Alka Chandna is vice president of laboratory investigations cases with PETA. Chandna, who routinely reviews reports from animal research facilities across the United States, said Oregon's track record of violations and mishaps stands out as particularly poor.
Chandna said the state's biomedical research facilities have a pattern of fatal incidents with animals.
"Even as primate centers go, there are seven national research centers across the country," Chandna said. "Among them, I would say Oregon has a particularly bad record. When a facility keeps animals, it really is their responsibility to make sure they're protected. If they're being kept for experimentation, there are laws in place, but clearly these organizations are not complying."
While PETA has its own baggage — the organization has soured the public with some of its ads and stances on euthanizing animals in shelters — the organization is arguably the largest non-governmental watchdog of animal experimentation labs.
Records of more than a dozen citations issued to OHSU over the last decade show a pattern of accidental animal deaths and euthanasia, following injury or illness. USDA inspectors often note a lack of veterinary care or lack of adherence to protocols. Many of the reports note injuries sustained from cages or enclosures, while others frequently cite personnel training issues.
In each case, OHSU animal care specialists say they take measures to correct the actions.
"There's always room for improvement, which is why we do a root cause analysis," Jarrell said. "Sometimes things do happen that we did not anticipate. When it does happen, we try to prevent it from happening again. Our work does have value and we take it very seriously. We don't use animals unless we absolutely need to for a scientific question."
Greg Timmel, chief and attending veterinarian with OHSU's primate research center, points to COVID-19 vaccine research that was done on animals prior to human trials. "We would not have had that vaccine without the critical contribution of monkeys," Timmel said.
Animals also have been used for decades in research on HIV and maternal health.
Animal welfare organizations like PETA have pushed for animals to be replaced in testing with alternative research methods, like human stem cell research, genomics, computer modeling and organs-on-chips, claiming 95% of all new drugs that appear safe and effective in animal tests "fail or cause harm in human clinical trials."
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