UF faces complaint by group over treatment of research animals
Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 at 5:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2014 at 2:12 p.m.
An animal rights group critical of the University of Florida's treatment of lab research animals has filed a federal complaint alleging a "culture of negligence" toward its lab animals.
Eleventh Hour for Animals filed a complaint on Christmas Eve with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and blasted the news over the weekend via email to dozens of people in the local media and affiliated with UF.
The group alleges UF violated the Animal Welfare Act in its treatment of Louis, a macaque monkey that was euthanized in 2010. The complaint is based on documents obtained through a two-year legal battle over the release of public records.
Karen Kline, the senior laboratory investigator for Eleventh Hour, claimed that the treatment of Louis illustrates a "culture of negligence, and more likely than not, sheer incompetence …" and asked for a full investigation of the 25 primates at UF. The group asked for swift, disciplinary action if the allegations are substantiated.
UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said Tuesday the university is aware a complaint has been made, but had not been contacted by the USDA.
"We are already heavily monitored and subject to stringent and multiple federal laws, and university regulations as it relates to animal care and treatment," Sikes said. "We provide a healthy, safe environment for our animals."
The university also has been accredited since 1966 by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International, a private nonprofit organization that "endorses the use of animals to advance medicine and science when there are no non-animal alternatives, and when it is done in an ethical and humane way," according to its website.
UF is also licensed by the USDA to keep animals for research purposes, and has 1,843 research animals, according to its most recent annual report filed with the USDA. Those animals include horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, pigs, dogs, cats and primates.
UF must meet USDA standards for housing, handling, sanitation, food, water and medical care, and file annual reports to the USDA noting how many animals it has with an explanation of how they are being used.
Also, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service inspects the facilities periodically, usually a minimum of once a year, to ensure compliance, said Tanya Espinosa, a public affairs specialist with APHIS. Anything out of compliance is noted, and a compliance report is issued, along with any corrective or disciplinary action required.
UF has had three routine inspections since 2011, with problems noted and corrections made with no further action necessary.
Both annual reports and compliance reports are posted online and available for public review, she said. People can also make public information requests seeking additional information, Espinosa said.
Whenever a complaint is filed, the USDA will forward the complaint to an inspector who will make an unannounced visit to the facility, she said. If no violations are found, the inspector will issue a compliance report. If the inspector finds the institution in violation or noncompliance, say, for keeping regulated animals in kennels that are too small, the inspector can open an investigation and look at the institution's compliance history and previous corrective action. The inspector would also determine if the violation threatens the health or well-being of the animal.
The inspector then decides what level of action needs to be taken, in the penalty phase — it could be as light as an official warning letter with no enforcement required, or a penalty with a stipulation to take corrective action, or failing that, it could go to an administrative law judge.
The final inspection report goes online within 21 days unless the facility appeals the inspection, Espinosa said.
Kline said she had little faith the USDA would find any wrongdoing, but hoped to use the filing of the complaint to generate more awareness and moral outrage among her supporters to put pressure on lawmakers and other officials to stop animal research.
"I would like to see UF be more cooperative, see them stop torturing the monkeys," Kline said. "These are all useless experiments. They are not gaining anything from it and it's all taxpayer money."
The reports available on the USDA website don't provide the level of detail in the veterinarian reports and necropsy reports obtained by the public records request from UF, Kline said. And those records were hard to come by.
Her fellow activist, Camille Moreno, fought a two-year legal battle to obtain records of UF's lab animals and received hundreds of pages of research records in April that document the treatment of animals through 2010, said their lawyer, Marcy LaHart of Gainesville.
Kline said those records show that Louis and other animals were treated in a way that violated the Animal Welfare Act.
In October, Kline filed an updated request for additional records from 2010 through 2013. When she didn't hear from UF after a week, she sent another email asking for a progress report, and when she continued to get no reply, she filed a motion in Alachua County Court asking for a judge to make UF comply with the request.
Her lawyer, LaHart, has since heard from UF counsel, who told her they had not received the request but were currently working to get those records for her client.
"What we really care about is getting the records," LaHart said. "If it was truly an honest mistake, hopefully the university will figure out where the miscommunication or disconnect happened and make sure it never happens again."
LaHart said laws protecting research animals are minimal. "I have seen records of animals that were deliberately made sick. There is no happy ending when going through the records of care given to these animals. There just is not."
Also, things that a private person does to a pet that would be considered animal cruelty are allowed under the Animal Welfare Act, she said.
"The Animal Welfare Act provides for minimum standards, and in some instances are not complied with," LaHart said. "An animal should not be allowed to languish and suffer unnecessarily because it has misfortune of being a research tool."