USDA Report Faults UAF For Musk Oxen Deaths
A recent inspection report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture faulted staff at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station in the deaths of 12 musk oxen last year.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
FAIRBANKS — A recent inspection report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture faulted staff at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station in the deaths of 12 musk oxen last year.
In response, a national research watchdog organization from Ohio is asking the USDA to conduct a full investigation and levy a major fine against the school.
A university spokeswoman, meanwhile, said changes have been made to address the problems raised by the USDA and the remaining musk ox herd is healthy.
The musk oxen, part of a research herd at UAF, died or were euthanized during a six-month period beginning in September 2010 as a result of what school officials believe was a mineral deficiency that caused them to stop eating. One-third of the school’s musk ox herd died or was put down as a result.
During a routine inspection in August, the USDA cited UAF for multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including inadequate veterinary care, inadequate supervision of experiments by the school’s animal care committee, unqualified personnel, insufficient employees and improper feeding of animals.
The USDA inspection, conducted Aug. 29 and 30 by veterinarian Tracy Thompson of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, concluded the following:
• Research staff at LARS were instructed not to contact the school’s head veterinarian, John Blake, regarding problems of animal health and well-being “due to concern with the attending veterinarian’s additional role in the Office of Research Integrity and perceived fear of reprisal by the ORI.”
“Decisions made by research staff without consultation with (Blake) directly impacted the health and well-being of at least 12 musk oxen that experienced chronic malnutrition and emaciation leading to their deaths, undermining the ability of the attending veterinarian to oversee the provision of adequate vet care and other aspects of these animals care and use,” the report stated. “Daily observation of the animals did not identify the significant herd health problems, and a mechanism of direct and frequent communication was not in place in order to provide timely and accurate information on animal health problems to the (attending veterinarian).”
• Changes made to the animals’ diets without approval from Blake or other appropriate personnel with knowledge of musk oxen nutrition were a contributing factor in the deaths.
• There were not enough trained employees at LARS “to maintain the methods established to collect and analyze data, which contributed to the demise of 12 musk oxen.”
A national research watchdog group — Stop Animal Exploitation NOW — that is fighting to stop animal research testing issued a news release Monday asking for a full USDA investigation.
“Overall, the staff and administration of this facility have shown a total disregard for the health and well-being of the animals in their care, as well as contempt for the Animal Welfare Act, and for USDA/APHIS’s enforcement of this federal law,” group founder Michael Budkie said in the news release.
Budkie requested “a detailed investigation of the care (or lack thereof) for all animals at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks) as well as instituting the proceedings necessary to levy the largest fine allowable under the Animal Welfare Act.”
The watchdog group opposes the use of all animals for research and monitors all registered research facilities in the United States, Budkie said.
UAF spokeswoman Marmian Grimes said the school corrected most of the problems cited in the report long before a USDA inspector showed up in August.
“A lot of things were corrected as soon as the animals got sick,” she said.
Blake alerted the USDA about the deaths when they occurred, and the school brought in a private consultant to do a full review of the school’s entire animal care program following the deaths, Grimes said. The consultant uncovered many of the same shortcomings cited by the USDA, she said.
Following the review, the school restructured the LARS staff so Blake is no longer in charge of compliance and to have animal care staff report to Blake, not researchers, as was previously the case. Blake now oversees care of the musk oxen, Grimes said. Staffing at LARS, which was low at the time of the musk oxen deaths, also has been increased, she said.
“The herd has definitely improved significantly,” Grimes said. “All four calves that were born this spring survived; that’s a huge deal. We haven’t had successful reproduction the last few years. That’s a good indication the health of the herd has improved significantly.”