College faces animal abuse claims
After two separate incidents in which a total of 13 voles used as test subjects by the College died from dehydration, research watchdog organization Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleging that the researchers engaged in animal abuse by failing to provide the voles with sufficient water and appropriate observation.
Michael Budkie, SAEN’s executive director, learned the details of the two incidents of alleged animal abuse after he obtained two documents from the National Institutes of Health under a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents contain correspondence between Roger Sloboda, Dartmouth’s institutional official for animal care and use and biology professor, and officials at the NIH. Sloboda confirmed via email the authenticity of the documents obtained by SAEN. The original research involving the voles concerned prions, which are abnormal proteins that can cause neurodegenerative diseases in humans.
In the first of these documents, dated Mar. 28, 2016, Sloboda describes the deaths of five voles that were identified in cages with empty water bottles. The document references a preliminary report written on Feb. 17, 2016, though it is currently unknown exactly when the voles died.
According to Slobodoa’s March 28, 2016 email, testing confirmed a 10 percent incidence of diabetes among the surviving voles. The email also proposed that the incidence of diabetes in the colony caused the voles to consume excess amounts of water.
In the second of these documents, dated Jun. 1, 2016, Sloboda describes the deaths of seven other voles that were identified in cages lacking water bottles entirely. An eighth vole suffering from dehydration required euthanasia. The second set of voles were found on Mar. 27, 2016.
An investigation revealed that animal care staff did not replace water bottles on Mar. 25, 2016, and that daily checks did not reveal the lack of water bottles the next day. In the document, Sloboda acknowledges a “regrettable and avoidable error” and said that an action plan was implemented to prevent similar events from occurring in the future. The plan included mandatory retraining for animal care staff and increased observation of the animals.
College spokesperon Diana Lawrence wrote in an email that the second instance of alleged abuse was an “unfortunate oversight.”
Budkie, however, disputed this characterization.
“Failure to put water bottles on animals’ cages is not an ‘unfortunate oversight,’” he said. “That is clear and unadulterated negligence.”
Budkie was unsatisfied by the researchers’ actions in both instances, saying that they should have monitored the voles more closely. He said that excessive water consumption is one of the most obvious symptoms of diabetes in animals.
“If they didn’t know that the animals were diabetic, then they obviously were not observing the animals closely enough,” he said.
Budkie said that the researchers’ actions were not only instances of negligence but were also violations of three distinct sections of the Animal Welfare Act, which requires that animals be given sufficient water, be observed daily and receive medical attention in the event they become ill.
SAEN filed a complaint with the USDA on Jan. 2, 2017 and is seeking the maximum penalty of $10,000 per infraction per animal, as specified by the AWA. The complaint specified alleged violations of AWA sections 3.83, 2.33 and 2.38.
Budkie explained that if the College were to be found in violation of three different sections of the Animal Welfare Act, the fine imposed on Dartmouth could be as high as $30,000 per animal.
Aine Donovan, the director of the College’s Ethics Institute, emphasized the corrective action that researchers have implemented to prevent similar events from occurring in the future. She supported the mandatory retraining for animal care staff implemented following the second incident, saying that as an ethicist, she would recommend such a program.
Donovan highlighted the College’s commitment to animal welfare over the years, saying that Dartmouth has maintained high standards of animal welfare during her tenure.
“We have adhered to very strict guidelines about how those animals are treated,” she said. “The training that we do is quite extensive.”
When asked if Dartmouth should be ethically required to pay a fine in either of the two instances, Donovan drew a distinction between malicious intent and human error, saying that only the former should be penalized.
Clare Palmer, a philosophy professor at Texas A&M University and the author of “Animal Ethics in Context,” wrote in an email that though she did not know details of the incidents, based on reported facts, she believed that the level of suffering the voles experienced in the incident was “ethically problematic” because they were not part of an experiment about animal suffering. She noted that more detailed information would be necessary to conclude that these ethical problems rise to the level of abuse or neglect.
Budkie’s claims that the researchers’ behavior may be unlawful were supported by Amanda Schwoerke, a professor of ethics and animal law at Duke University School of Law, who had not been aware of the accusations against the researchers prior to receiving background information.
When provided with documents obtained by SAEN containing Dartmouth’s correspondence with the NIH, she said in response to the first incident that there was a strong possibility that the incidents constituted a violation of the AWA. Regarding the second incident, she said that it “seems pretty unambiguous” that Dartmouth violated sections of the act, though she noted that she was basing these claims only on the documents obtained by SAEN.
Both Budkie and Schwoerke agreed that the USDA might find Dartmouth to be in violation of other sections of the AWA in addition to the three noted in SAEN’s complaint. Schwoerke noted that, given the oversights of animal care staff in the second incident, the USDA might investigate violations related to personnel qualifications. Budkie added that adequately trained personnel would not have failed to provide voles with water for up to two days.
When asked to identify possible legal ramifications of SAEN’s complaint to the USDA, Schwoerke said that a citation against the College would likely be issued by the USDA. She also pointed to the possibility that Dartmouth will reach a settlement with the USDA, in which the College will agree to handle animals more carefully and pay a small fine. She added that the USDA would be unlikely to impose the maximum $10,000 fine per infraction per animal being sought by SAEN and administrative charges against the College were extremely unlikely.
“As awful as this is…I don’t think it would light a fire under the agency,” she said.
The allegations against the College have sparked a larger debate about the future of using animals as test subjects in research.
Budkie suggested that Dartmouth cease to use animals in research studies on the grounds that the practice is outdated and creates the potential for animal exploitation. He pointed to emerging technologies, including “organ-on-a-chip technology,” as possible replacements for animals in research studies.
Organ-on-a-chip technology uses microfluidic devices to simulate the activities of internal organs on a microchip. Donovan pointed out that such technology has not yet been developed to the point that they can fully replace animals in research studies.
“Unfortunately, animals are the best test vehicles for clinical trials to test drugs,” she said.
In an email, Sloboda wrote that many important medical advances have relied on animal testing.
“I do not think many people evaluate their concerns about animal research knowing that much of their health and well-being rests on a foundation of animal-based research,” he wrote.