An animal rights group filed a complaint Tuesday, claiming that USF neglected and mistreated research monkeys, resulting in the deaths of five monkeys.
The complaint, lodged with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was made by Stop Animal Exploitation Now, or SAEN, which claimed it received a report from an anonymous source on May 30 stating that five primates used in diabetic research by the Department of Internal Medicine died in a two-week period. Officials from health sciences denied mistreating the animals but confirmed that five animals had died since May from various chronic conditions.
SAEN is asking the USDA to conduct an official investigation. The group also filed a request with USF’s Division of Comparative Medicine on Tuesday asking for all primate health care records, including post-mortem paperwork. The division oversees the care of research animals at USF.
“If what we have been told is true, and I can only assume it is, then there is a problem at the University of South Florida,” said Michael Budkie, executive director of SAEN. “To have five primates die in a period of a couple of weeks, reportedly due to neglect, is a very serious allegation, and we think that it is something that should be looked into immediately.”
Phil Marty, associate dean of the College of Medicine, said that the animals in question received good care. The nature of diabetic research on the animals, a longitudinal study that required following them into old age, accounted for their deaths, Marty said.
“Unfortunately with animals, as occurs in humans, they develop a lot of different chronic conditions,” said Marty. “Those conditions are treated and those animals are maintained for absolutely as long as possible. Things happen with the kidneys and the eyes and the brain of these animals, and there are pathologies that develop. These animals were cared for very, very well.”
Barbara Hansen, an internationally recognized expert in diabetic research who will become a full-time staff member on July 1, brought the primate colony with her from the University of Maryland where she began her research. USF recruited her to enhance USF’s research program.
The complaint filed by SAEN stated that one primate died slowly, although the animal’s extended sickness warranted euthanasia. The complaint also states that Hansen was on vacation during the deaths. Marty, although uncertain of Hansen’s whereabouts during the first four primate deaths, said that during the most recent death he believed she was in Greece attending a professional meeting. Marty feels Hansen’s recent absences constitute nothing unusual.
“Dr. Hansen’s been back and forth at different times and was out of the country to a conference,” said Marty. “It would not be atypical at all that the principal investigator who is involved in overseeing the research gives scientific papers and does a little travel here and there.”
Veterinarians in the Division of Comparative Medicine and research staff oversee the care of research animals at USF. The university also has routine inspections from USDA veterinarians.
Some specific details in the anonymous complaint remain vague, a typical circumstance according to Budkie.
“When you’re dealing with these anonymous sources, it’s a little bit difficult,” said Budkie. “The situation they’re in is that they’re trying to tell you what’s going on, but there’s only so much they can tell you without making it clear who’s making the report. They’re kind of in a catch-22 situation.”
The USDA said USF was guilty of “recurring noncompliance” after a May 2004 incident when several dogs received burns because heating pads used to warm them after they were anesthetized reached harmful temperatures. This followed an incident in 2000 when dogs received similar burns. After USF was cited for the incident in 2001, USF’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee adopted measures to ensure no repeat would occur. USF discontinued the use of heating pads following the May 2004 incident, said Michael Hoad, associate vice president of the Health Sciences Center.