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Group says Primate Center, USDA covered up negligence

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April 19, 2011 |

An animal-rights group on Tuesday accused the California National Primate Research Center and U.S. Department of Agriculture of covering up negligence in the death of research monkeys.

Michael Budkie, executive director of the Ohio-based group Stop Animal Exploitation Now!, said UC Davis and USDA did not respond to an anonymous whistleblower complaint about deaths in the center’s outdoor enclosures.

As a result, he said, at least 36 more animals died under similar circumstances.

“Obviously, there are issues within UC Davis with regard to how they’re taking care of the animals,” Budkie said at a news conference in Davis, “but in this situation the more serious question is: How is it that the USDA could go in and do an investigation, see that the animals were just being found dead with no previous record of treatment, care, diagnosis or anything serious like that, and say that nothing was wrong?”

UCD quickly denied the accusations. The USDA said it would look into them.

Budkie provided reporters with what he said was the whistleblower’s July 2008 complaint to the USDA and the university.

The letter lists the identification numbers of 86 monkeys found dead in their cages and another 19 alleged to have been hospitalized in an emaciated or dehydrated state “that might still be alive if they were treated sooner.” Many of the animals were infants.

The author blames the problem on staff being inadequately trained to recognize signs of weight loss and technicians either relying too heavily on observers or ignoring their feedback. Some cages and enclosures were not being checked daily, the letter says.

UCD spokesman Andy Fell said he was unaware of such a whistleblower complaint being filed with the university: “To my knowledge, I don’t think there’s a complaint corresponding to what (Budkie) is talking about.”

About 3,000 of the more than 5,000 primates housed at the 300-acre center, about two miles west of the main UCD campus, live in 24 half-acre outdoor corrals.

“In some instances when a monkey is born there, the mother is unable or unwilling to look after it or another individual attacks it,” Fell said. “It happens in the wild, it happens here in these large family groups. … We would reject the idea that any of these monkeys died because of something that could have been prevented or because they weren’t treated.”

Fell said each enclosure is checked daily, and that the USDA has inspected the facility 19 times so far in 2011.

Budkie, though, pointed to a January 2010 necropsy report for a 10-month-old monkey as what he believes is proof that animals are not being watched closely. In it, the dead monkey’s body is described as being found “in poor condition” and “entirely covered in mud and gravel.”

Responded Fell, “If it was covered in mud and gravel, it was likely done by another monkey. Unfortunately, they’re pretty rough sometimes.”

In a separate instance, in June 2010, a USDA inspector cited the research center for using a monkey in a fourth study “despite the progressive worsening of medical and behavioral problems that led to unnecessary discomfort, distress and pain to that animal.” The monkey later was euthanized.

The inspector noted that the animal was sedated 15 times and suffered 10 instances of vomiting between the third and fourth studies in which it was used.

UCD appealed the citation to the Sacramento USDA office. After that was turned down, UCD appealed to the regional office. It is still pending.

According to the university’s appeal, the 6-year-old monkey was cleared for use in the study by behavior management, research and veterinary staff, all of whom agreed the monkey could safely be used in a vaccine study involving “minimal stress.”

UCD said 12 of the sedations took place after a 2006 foot injury and were done to protect both the animal and staff during bandage changes. The vomiting episodes took place over more than two years — not frequent enough to be clinically significant, according to the letter to USDA from UCD’s attending veterinarian, Victor Lukas.

Fell said it amounted to a “difference of opinion” between the inspector reviewing the necropsy and the center’s staff, which felt the animal was “healthy and stable enough to go into” another study.

Budkie said his concern went further. The documents he received from a public records request mentioned neither the sedations nor the animal’s vomiting.

“Somewhere between the laboratory where this animal was being used and the records that were provided to us, this information apparently disappeared,” said Budkie, who raised the possibility of a cover-up to protect federal grant money if the center was found to have broken the law.

The necropsy report Budkie requested included “very basic” information, Fell said, while the full medical report includes more.

“There’s no inconsistency there — there’s no cover-up,” Fell said, adding, “He gets the documents he requests.”

USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said an inspector would be dispatched to the center to look into the whistleblower complaint. As for the issue with the individual monkey that UCD is appealing, Sacks said it would it would be inappropriate for him to comment on an ongoing appeal.

Budkie labeled the research center “a business” and questioned the need for animal research generally. He again returned to the image of the dead monkey in the mud:

“Is this the picture of a facility capable of producing something that roughly resembles science? They don’t even know when the animals are dying. Do you want to believe the result of experiments that come out of this facility? I know I don’t.”

Fell said the Primate Center has done important research into HIV/AIDS, autism and childhood asthma.

For instance, work was done there in the 1990s on both the anti-retroviral drug tenofovir and the use of a vaginal gel effective on animals with simian immunodeficiency virus, the primate version of HIV.

That laid the groundwork for a 2010 trial of a tenofovir gel used by 900 HIV-negative South African women that reduced infections by 54 percent, compared to a control group, among women who strictly adhered to its instructions.

UCD’s Primate Center employs about 400 people. It operates on a federally funded budget of about $10 million annually and another $24 million per year in outside funding generated by its researchers. A new 20,000-square-foot respiratory diseases center is due to open there in 2013.

— Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8046.

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Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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