Written by James Goodman, Democrat and Chronicle
When a researcher at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry could not coax a monkey that he was working with out of its cage last August, he decided not to feed it — in effect, to starve the monkey out.
But after four days, an animal-care worker — not seeing any feces from the monkey — notified UR officials that he suspected the monkey was not being fed, said Dr. Jeff Wyatt, who as UR attending veterinarian oversees the care of animals in research.
In addition, another monkey had not been fed for two days for a similar reason by the same researcher.
The researcher, whose identity was not disclosed by UR officials, was immediately told to resume feeding the monkeys.
“He violated our policies. We have sanctioned him,” said Wyatt, noting that the researcher was eventually temporarily suspended from conducting research.
Federal law requires that animals used in research be fed daily.
The researcher is now back in the lab doing research on the same monkeys — under close supervision that includes a compliance officer keeping a watch on both the vivarium where the monkeys are kept and the lab used.
UR officials declined to provide details about the researcher’s work, other than to say it will help in understanding brain functions. Scientists have said that research on monkeys is needed to study and find treatments for brain disorders.
Information about the researcher’s failure to feed the monkeys did not surface in the public domain until the U.S. Department of Agriculture filed a routine inspection report last month that briefly told of the failure to feed the monkeys.
Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! — an animal rights group — issued a news release this week publicizing the incident.
Michael Budkie, executive director of the group, said that a “lab that receives millions of dollars in federal tax grants should at least be able to make sure that the animals are fed.”
UR’s Medical Center issued a statement saying that it has taken “strong” steps to address “an isolated incident involving a single scientist who made an unacceptable decision.” The controversy dates back to August, when Wyatt and other UR officials learned that a researcher was suspected of not feeding a monkey.
It was quickly determined that one monkey had not been fed on four consecutive days and another monkey had not been fed for two days.
In addition to resuming the feeding, the researcher was put on a corrective plan — and he continued his research.
UR also notified the National Institutes of Health — the funding agency for this research — and the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care.
But the researcher ran into trouble again this year when he veered from his corrective plan — and fed one of the monkeys too much.
As a result, the researcher was suspended in late March.
In early April, UR contacted the USDA, which enforces the federal law governing animal research, and told the federal agency about the suspension, as UR is required to do.
The researcher was subsequently permitted to continue his research — but under closer supervision and on administrative probation.
In late May, the USDA made an inspection of UR and filed a report noting the failure to feed the two monkeys in August.
The report, which is a public document but not publicized by USDA, was uncovered by the animal rights group.
UR also drew criticism from The Humane Society of the United States for not notifying the USDA until early April.
Martin Stephens, vice president of animal research for the Humane Society, said that USDA should have been involved early on in the corrective action.
“There needs to be more transparency,” he said.
He also said that even though UR is a private institution, most of its research is funded with public dollars and overseen by public laws.
“What is being done in our name?” said Stephens.
UR Medical Center spokeswoman Teri D’Agostino said that UR has been forthcoming about this incident.
“I reject the premise that we have been secretive,” she said.
In a memo accompanying the USDA’s May 24 inspection report, Dr. Elizabeth Goldentyer, Eastern Regional Director for the department’s inspection service, said that the experiment with these monkeys should have been listed under a special category — Category E — in the annual 2010 report on animal research that UR filed with the USDA.
That category is for animals used in experiments that cause pain or distress but no relief, such as anesthesia or drugs, is given because it would interfere with the experiment.
Wyatt said that the experiment was not authorized by UR under Category E, and he didn’t know about the withholding of food from the monkey until the animal-care worker told UR officials of this possibility.
But Wyatt said it was his mistake not to note in UR’s annual report that was subsequently filed with the USDA that this experiment should be considered under Category E because of the way the researcher conducted it.
The report is being corrected.
USDA spokeswoman Lindsay Cole said that the federal government monitors more than 1,100 research facilities.
Each facility must have an oversight group. At UR, the Committee on Animal Resources conducts this task, but does not leave much of a public paper trail.
D’Agostino said that the researcher is now fully complying with the corrective action plan that has been devised by UR for continuing his research.
“He’s on indefinite probation,” she said.