By Nanette Asimov
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that it has fined UC Berkeley $8,750 for allowing five lab animals to die of thirst in 2011.
The creatures were small, long-tailed rodents called voles that were part of a study of circadian rhythms looking at how light affects physiology, said Roger Van Andel, director of the Office of Laboratory Animal Care at UC Berkeley.
“We took very aggressive action to make sure this sort of thing could not occur again,” Van Andel said. He noted that the death of the animals was the first such incident to happen at the campus, which no longer uses voles but performs research on about 100,000 mice each year in addition to other animals.
UC Berkeley is not the only UC campus cited for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act in recent years.
In October, the federal agency ordered the California National Primate Research Center, located on the UCD campus, to secure the locks on all cages by November.
“These cage mechanisms are now all padlocked,” said spokesman Andy Fell, noting that the center houses about 5,000 monkeys that are checked twice a day. Many of them also live in large family groups in half-acre outdoor corrals, he said.
UCD researchers rely on the monkeys to test treatments for a range of diseases, from HIV/AIDS to asthma and Alzheimer’s, Fell said.
Another campus, UCSF, has one of the largest medical research programs in the country and uses hundreds of thousands of animals in the development of treatments for diseases.
In 2012, The Chronicle reported that incidents of animal neglect or mistreatment persisted at the medical school even after it paid more than $90,000 to settle such violations in the early 2000s. In one instance, a primate was starved for weeks. And during 2008 and 2009, a rhesus monkey was kept in a brain study despite chronic and painful complications.
Although there is no evidence of similar violations lately, the campus fired one researcher a year ago after the employee injected mice with the wrong amount of an antiparasitic medicine, killing 110 of them.
What happened at UC Berkeley is that two graduate students placed about 150 voles in a light box on a Thursday, expecting a staff member to tell caretakers to give them water, Van Andel said. But the staff member had recently retired, and no one checked the animals until the following Tuesday.
The neglect infuriates groups devoted to animal welfare, such as Stop Animal Exploitation Now, which reported the monkey death at UCD, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“While no penalty — monetary or otherwise — can undo the unimaginable suffering of the frightened voles who were trapped in their cages as they experienced excruciating pain before their deaths, we hope the fine compels UC Berkeley to ensure that it adheres to the minimal animal welfare standards required by law,” said Alka Chandna, a lab oversight specialist with PETA.
Van Andel said the labs have changed their procedures so that only the caretakers may move animals into new enclosures, and that clear signs are placed in boxes housing animals.
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