Several Universities Are Accused of Mistreating Animals at Medical Facilities

March 04, 2009

Two organizations’ allegations about the treatment of animals in medical training and research drew unwelcome attention to several universities today.

The Humane Society of the United States, a leading animal-protection organization, released the results of what it says was a nine-month undercover investigation into research on primates at the New Iberia Research Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

The society says its investigation was the most comprehensive ever conducted at a major primate-research facility, and resulted in a 108-page complaint to the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleging at least 338 possible violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. The practices include routinely using “powerful and painful dart guns” on the primates, who respond to their captivity with self-destructive behaviors such as tearing gaping wounds into their arms and legs, the group said.

Experiments at the New Iberia center “come at an enormous short-term and long-term expense to taxpayers, and an even greater expense in suffering and anguish to chimpanzees and other primates,” the president of the Humane Society, Wayne Pacelle, said in a written statement.

The university-run research facility said in a statement that hidden-camera videos of operations there give a distorted picture of the facility’s treatment of animals. “Nothing in the videos alter the fact that the New Iberia Research Center is in compliance with all federal standards and guidelines regarding the care and use of animals,” the statement said.

The Humane Society’s complaints instead, it said, are part of a larger campaign by that organization “to ban the use of chimpanzees in research.”

Also today, the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine praised the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for its decision last week to stop using live dogs from animal shelters in its surgical-training programs. The committee said it was now turning its attention to a dwindling group of 16 hospitals and universities that it says still use animals in that way.

According to the lobbying group, those institutions include the Albany Medical College, in New York; the Oklahoma University Medical Center; the University of South Alabama; the University of Texas Medical Branch; and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. By comparison, the group lists 185 institutions that now use nonanimal models for their courses in advanced-trauma life support.

A spokesman for UMDNJ said the university uses pigs, not dogs, in its training programs, and continually monitors and evaluates alternative methods.

“Our experience continues to support the use of mature, anesthetized pig models during the laboratory segment,” said the UMDNJ spokesman, Jeffrey R. Tolvin. “We believe that this continues to provide the highest-quality training and most closely mimics the experiences doctors can face in real emergencies.”

A spokeswoman for the physicians’ group, Jeanne S. McVey, said it was making the New Jersey university its next major target, hoping to persuade UMDNJ to switch to a nonanimal model before next week, when it begins its next session of the surgical-training course.

The physicians’ group also included Vanderbilt University on its list of institutions using animals in their programs, but Vanderbilt denied it.

The university once used dogs for medical training, continuing medical-education training, and medical-board certification purposes, said a spokesman, John Howser. But those practices ceased a decade ago, he said. —Paul Basken

Update (3/5): This post was changed today to include a response from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.