Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN), a Cincinnati-based watchdog organization for animal welfare, sent a letter to the Office of UW President Ana Mari Cauce on Sept. 3 alleging “serious systemic problems” and insisting the university “launch an independent probe of the animal experimentation program.”
The letter outlined six incidents involving the deaths of rats and five separate deaths of primates since 2018. It ends with two demands.
First, that all staff connected to any of the animal deaths mentioned be terminated, and second, that the UW administration launch an “independent investigation of the entire animal experimentation program at the University of Washington, with the full results to be made public.”
The letter alleges that the incidents violate various sections of the Animal Welfare Act which opens the UW to the possibility of fines by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
SAEN Executive Director Michael Budkie said his organization has not received a response to the letter. Beyond the requests of this letter, SAEN has alleged misconduct against the UW’s animal research dating back to at least 2001 and has filed seven complaints with the USDA since 2016.
The Daily met with five officials of the UW Animal Research and Care Facility to discuss the letter and the incidents described. The attendees were Susan Gregg, Health Sciences director of media relations, Sally Thompson-Iritani, director of the Office of Animal Welfare, Kim Stocking, veterinarian with the Office of Animal Welfare, Jane Sullivan, chair of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), the oversight body responsible for animal research, and Thea Brabb, faculty with Comparative Medicine who oversees veterinary care of animals at the UW.
They emphasized the rarity of adverse events like the improper animal deaths described in the letter as well as the transparency practiced by their organizations.
According to Thompson-Iritani, the UW’s animal experimentation program is inspected every three years, most recently in June, and has continued to be recommended for accreditation.
Given the UW already independently inspects their program, the officials with UW animal research will not be hiring another investigator as SAEN has called for.
In July, The Daily reported that SAEN had filed a complaint with the USDA regarding the death of the improperly fasted monkey. SAEN reported at the time that the incident was brought to their attention via a whistleblower, although officials with the UW Animal Research and Care Facility were quick to want to point out all of the facts from the group’s September letter that had been self-reported by the UW to the appropriate agencies.
Just as humans are advised to not eat or drink prior to surgery, animals are supposed to fast before undergoing surgery to reduce the likelihood of complications, particularly vomiting. Budkie and SAEN say this death was entirely preventable, and that the UW researchers were “eager for the data” and did not delay the surgery to allow the proper amount of fasting.
Thompson-Iritani noted that the UW is not disputing the facts of the letter. “We would refute their interpretation but the claims are self-reported and written by us.”
The other primate deaths included a death by asphyxiation, a death following a femoral artery being hit during a blood draw, a death during recovery from anesthesia, and one monkey euthanized following a fractured humerus.
The incident of rat deaths occurred when a staff member with the research team mistakenly included a box with rats on a cart with boxes of items put in an autoclave for sterilization.
“This kind of carelessness has no excuse,” SAEN wrote.
The UW officials did not offer any excuses. They explained that careful steps are now taken to ensure animals never share carts with items that may need to be sterilized.
SAEN’s takeaway from the episodes of negligence and alleged misconduct in their letter is that the UW has demonstrated an inability to conduct basic elements of research, such as properly fasting subjects before surgery and preventing dehydration, which SAEN believes should call into question the UW’s ability to conduct research at all.
“If UW staff can’t be counted on to not put animals in the autoclave, cause death by dehydration, cause death by insufficient fasting before surgery, allow suffocation/strangulation, then why should anyone believe that the UW is in any way capable of doing anything that even roughly resembles science?” SAEN’s letter reads.
When asked about the nearly two decades of misconduct SAEN has alleged against the UW, Budkie said that it does not appear the UW has modified their practices to prevent violations.
According to Thompson-Iritani, following each animal death, an action plan is immediately put in place to correct the mistake or violation from happening again.
In the past two decades, the UW Animal Research and Care Facility has been fined by the USDA once, according to Sullivan. However, a research institution can be found in violation of the Animal Welfare Act without being fined. Fines are typically reserved for egregious and continuous violations.
Researchers from the UW stressed the “devastation” felt by their entire staff following any of these incidents but wanted to make clear “all of the good work” they do and how rare these instances are. One figure that demonstrates this rarity, provided by Gregg, is that the total number of fastings prior to surgery was 6,365 last year, compared to the one fasting that resulted in a monkey’s death.
To some, like SAEN, students, and community members who have protested the UW’s animal research in the past, one case is too many. In an interview, Budkie said even if the UW staff did not make these mistakes and alleged violations, his organization would still disapprove of the university’s animal testing.
Justifying the need for animal research, Brabb pointed to progress in fields like diabetes, heart disease, and vaccines, all of which originate in animal research which has resulted in life-saving advancements and quality of life improvements in humans and animals that have been produced as a result.
Stocking dismissed methods such as computer modeling as viable alternatives to animal testing, at least as they exist today. Stocking and Brabb, both veterinarians, agreed getting computer programs to replace animal testing is the eventual goal.
“All laboratory animal veterinarians are striving to put themselves out of a job,” Brabb said.
Reach Development Editor Devon McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DevonM98
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