Harvard Medical School’s New England Primate Research Center is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after the October death of a monkey in a lab.
The case reflects both the widespread use of primates in research laboratories and the efforts of federal officials to enforce animal-welfare laws.
Last year there were 839 USDA investigations into noncompliance issues involving horse and other animal keepers, ranging from university research labs to circuses and dog-breeding operations, said Alyn Kiel, a USDA spokeswoman. Dozens of animals die in labs in accidents, experiments or from natural causes every year, she said.
In July, a dead monkey was found in a mechanical washer at Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s lab in Pennington, New Jersey, prompting a USDA inquiry. The agency fined the University of Washington’s primate research center $10,893 for the death of a monkey in 2009.
At the Harvard facility, the monkey escaped from its cage prior to an imaging procedure and an employee used a hand-held net to capture it, according to a December 2011 USDA report released this month. At the end of the imaging, the animal stopped moving, and a clinical veterinarian determined that it had died. The cause of death isn’t stated in the report.
“We take the USDA findings seriously and deeply regret the situation that led to this report,” Harvard Medical School said in an e-mail statement sent to Bloomberg News by spokesman David Cameron.
The Animal Welfare Act requires labs to handle research animals as “carefully” as possible to prevent “trauma,” overheating, physical harm “behavioral stress or unnecessary discomfort.”
The USDA enforces the law through its inspection of about 1,100 U.S. university and privately owned labs each year. Harvard’s Primate Research Center has one of the largest populations of monkeys among U.S. university research labs with more than 2,400, according to 2010 USDA figures. Tulane University’s National Primate Research Center had the most that year, 6,300.
Other labs in the U.S. have had more incidents of dead animals than Harvard. The USDA cited the University of Alaska last year when 12 musk oxen died or had to be euthanized because of malnutrition, and in 2010 a private lab in Iowa killed 39 pigs in a transport truck that lacked proper ventilation.
If investigators determine that the Harvard lab, which is 25 miles west of Boston in Southborough, Massachusetts, violated the Animal Welfare Act, it could face a maximum fine of $10,000, David Sacks, a USDA spokesman, said by phone.
“The citations aren’t full-fledged violations until after the investigation,” Sacks said.
The incident is the third primate death at a Harvard lab that has brought a USDA investigation in less than two years. In October 2010, Harvard received an official warning from the USDA after a dead monkey was found in a mechanical cage washer. Last year, a USDA report disclosed that another primate died of a drug overdose.
Harvard has received three warning letters and no fines in the 44 years its animal-care procedures have been monitored by the USDA, Sacks said.
The USDA’s inspection report about the dead monkey also said that three of the lab’s other primates had patchy hair loss, and one showed unusual behavior by licking its tail excessively and scratching itself frequently. These symptoms could be signs of “an animal being in psychological distress,” the report said.
“It was good to see that the USDA questioned the missing hair and showing signs of abnormal behavior,” Kathleen Conlee, senior director for animal-research issues at the Humane Society of the U.S., said by phone. “They questioned whether the primates were getting good care.”
The report also said that five pairs of primates were kept in a 6-square-foot space although USDA rules require at least 4.3-square-foot cages for each animal given their size.
A 23-pound primate was kept in a 4.3-square-foot cage instead of one that had at least 6 square feet of floor space, the minimum required by USDA rules given the animal’s weight.
“We are working with federal authorities in an effort to strengthen our process and to help ensure that we are consistently applying best practices,” the Harvard Medical School statement said.