Feds Cite University of Utah Laboratory for Negligently Burning Monkey

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Planet Health Inspection Service (USDA/APHIS) issued a damning inspection report related to the use of monkeys in experiments at the University of Utah. The report states that the U twice violated the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) in connection to an incident when a monkey was severely burned during surgery. The monkey’s burns were so severe that he or she was euthanized. UARC has already submitted a GRAMA request for internal records at the school to learn more details about this incident. We will post the records on our website when we have them.

Most of the monkeys at the U are used in invasive brain experiments conducted by Alessandra Angelucci. Monkeys in this laboratory have a stainless steel “halo” device screwed directly into their skull and electrodes implanted in their brains. The monkeys are then deprived of water before being strapped into a restraint device and forced to stare at a screen. The monkeys, who are awake and conscious, are restrained and have their heads immobilized for hours at a time. Federal data indicates that more than $5.2 million in taxpayer funds have already been wasted on these hideously cruel experiments.

A monkey named Frik imprisoned at the University of Utah.
A monkey named Frik imprisoned at the University of Utah.

When they aren’t being hurt by experimenters, these highly intelligent primates are confined to tiny, barren stainless steel cages. Primates in laboratories offer suffer long-term psychological damage, and exhibit neurotic behavior like endless pacing and self-mutilating.1Novak MA. Self-injurious behavior in rhesus monkeys: New insights into its etiology, physiology, and treatment. Am J Primatol. 2003;59(1):3-19. http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/ajp.10063.

Monkeys at the U live for years in tiny, stainless steel cages

The USDA inspection report blasts the U for “a failure of appropriate communication and oversight” in connection with the recent incident. The written protocol for the experiment required that the monkey’s internal body temperature be recorded continuously during the procedure, but lab staff failed to do so. Additionally, an unknown “hot air source” was inappropriately used to warm the animal, which caused a severe and ultimately fatal burn. These abject failures are troubling.

It’s not the first time the University of Utah’s animal research program has been in hot water with federal authorities. Following an undercover PETA investigation, the U was cited in 2010 for several violations of the AWA. Violations included allowing a kitten to die of dehydration, overcrowding animals in filthy cages, and neglecting primates for days at a time. The U’s only defense is that these violations weren’t “intentional,” but that doesn’t excuse acts of gross negligence.

In February 2011, after even more violations, the USDA took the rare step of issuing an “Official Warning” against the school for continuing to violate the AWA. Later that year, the U came under fire for killing a dog named Sunny, who was found as a stray. Sunny was killed despite the fact that she had a microchip with Utah Animal Adoption Center’s contact information. The organization was never contacted.

Robert, a cat at the University of Utah laboratory
Robert, a cat at the University of Utah laboratory

Unfortunately, history demonstrates that being cited with violating the AWA does little to ensure greater compliance going forward. A 2014 audit by the USDA Office of Investigator General (OIG) found that APHIS prematurely closes cases with warnings or very small fines, even when they involve “grave (e.g., animal deaths) or repeat welfare violations.”  An animal experimentation industry spokesperson was quoted in Science Magazine as saying that the audit was “pretty damning.” In reality, its findings revealed little that wasn’t already known before. Similar OIG audits in 1985, 1995, and 2005 all found that USDA enforcement of the AWA is extremely lax and ineffectual. Most research facilities consider the warnings and meager fines for violating the law as a small cost of doing business.

A long history of repeatedly violating the AWA has not resulted in the University of Utah cleaning up its act, and UARC doesn’t expect anything different from the latest citations. Additionally, Utah’s state cruelty laws essentially exempt animals who are being used in research from protection.2Utah Code Ann. § 76-9-301(7)(b). http://le.utah.gov/xcode/Title76/Chapter9/76-9-S301.html. In all likelihood, the U will be let off with another slap on the wrist, and the animals will continue to suffer.

If you’re a University of Utah alum, like most UARC board members, please voice your opposition to the school’s use of animals in experimentation to the alumni association. Additionally, refuse to donate to the school until it enters the 21st century of medical science and phases out the use of animals in research.

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