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USDA inspection yielded critical violation for gerbil starvation at research facility

COURTESY PHOTO: OHSU - OHSU recently was cited for animal welfare violations after the death of a gerbil at one of its animal research facilities.Federal regulators have charged Oregon Health & Science University with breaking federal animal welfare laws.

The university was issued a critical violation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture following a Dec. 6, 2021 inspection at one of OHSU's animal research labs.

According to the complaint, a Mongolian gerbil died of starvation during an experiment in which a group of gerbils had their food rationed. The animals were part of a hearing loss study, and were given regulated access to food as part of a round of behavioral tests for food rewards.

"A verbal request for services by a laboratory staff member to the husbandry supervisor was not communicated to the husbandry technician responsible for feeding in the room," a USDA inspection report notes. "Consequently, five animals were not given their daily ration on October 2, 2021. The problem was identified on October 3, 2021 and the animals were immediately provided food. In addition, the veterinarian was notified and conducted a physical exam. According to the facility, four of the five gerbils were bright and alert. One animal, however, presented as lethargic and was administered fluids by the veterinarian."

The inspector noted the animals' condition improved, but that same animal soon became lethargic again and despite veterinary interventions, the animal died on Oct. 4.

"Animals must be given food as required to ensure their health and comfort. These animals were under an IACUC-approved protocol describing how food was to be provided and the amount of the daily ration to be given to each animal," the inspector said, siting the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

The violation is the latest in a string of recent incidents citing inadequate technician oversight and lack of veterinary care at OHSU animal testing labs. It's the fourth critical violation in two years and the 17th violation in four years, critics note.

Violations include incidents in which two lab monkeys were scalded to death after accidentally being placed in a high-temperature cage washer, while another primate was injured after being caught in a drain cover and two others were euthanized after developing brain infections due to delayed veterinary care following experiments. In another incident, prairie voles died of dehydration when they were left without water.

The slew of mishaps has led animal rights activists to label the research university as the worst offender of animal rights violations in the nation.

Officials at OHSU say it takes animal care seriously, and relies on regular independent inspections.

"OHSU understands and embraces the responsibility to provide compassionate, leading-edge health and veterinary care that comes with the privilege of working with animals," a statement from OHSU reads. "We employ hundreds of dedicated staff who care deeply for the animals in our care and work around the clock to ensure humane, respectful treatment. Any time there is an unexpected issue or event involving these animals, it is deeply upsetting to all of us."

The university points to annual reviews of its laboratories by government agencies and its voluntary participation in the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International, AAALAC.

Animal welfare advocates say all of that is meaningless if repeated violations are occurring.

Stop Animal Exploitation Now!, an Ohio-based watchdog group that monitors the nation's research facilities for illegal activities and animal abuse, filed a federal complaint against OHSU with the USDA, urging the agency to make an example of OHSU with stiffer penalties.

"These violations demonstrate the most basic failures which could possibly occur in a laboratory," the complaint states. "OHSU has passed the level for a normal prosecution. ...Dozens of animals have died or been injured. Dozens of violations have occurred."

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has also chimed in saying OHSU's animal research should be stopped.

"Our government needs to pull the plug on the hundreds of millions of grant dollars that flow into OHSU every year and support human-relevant, non-animal research instead," PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said.

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