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Federal authorities announced July 2 that they are opening a new investigation of UNC’s treatment of laboratory animals in response to allegations made by a national animal rights group. It is the second such investigation in two years.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a formal complaint in May to the National Institutes of Health Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare alleging that researchers in some UNC labs had mistreated animals used in research. The group filed a similar complaint in 2002, which resulted in an investigation that ended in April. In both cases, PETA investigators obtained jobs in UNC labs and documented abuses with hidden cameras.
A team of five inspectors visited UNC laboratories July 29-30 to investigate PETA’s allegations. Its report is expected to be released in late August or early September. During the most recent investigation, UNC and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare exchanged letters for two years until both sides agreed the violations had been resolved, but no site inspection team ever toured the facilities.
Both sides said they welcome the OLAW site inspection.
“We think this is the best way to get out from underneath these charges,” said Bob Lowman, associate vice chancellor for research and economic development. “We are confident our program is well run.”
Lowman said the most recent PETA investigator worked in UNC labs during a transition period, when the University was refining policies to prevent animal cruelty. During the first investigation, UNC changed and rewrote vague animal-use policies, retrained employees in animal laboratories and suspended the research privileges of some scientists. But PETA officials alleged UNC made only superficial changes to its policies.
“I hope the NIH actually sends an audit team to go through the records to figure out how UNC sidesteps the guidelines,” said Mary Beth Sweetland, director of research and investigations at PETA. “If they do an honest, good job, they will find they’ve been hoodwinked.”
Alleged violations include failure to kill sick and injured animals in a timely manner, overcrowding of cages, amputations of toes for identification purposes and allowing tumors to grow to unacceptable sizes or become ulcerated. The undercover investigator, who has not been identified, took several pictures and videos, which Lowman said are difficult to decipher because of poor quality.
Both PETA and UNC said this investigation should end more quickly than the previous one. The range of punishment varies from nothing to revocation of assurance, depending on what the site inspection team finds. If UNC loses its assurance, no federal funds may go to research involving animals.