For the second time in two years, University researchers have responded to allegations of animal cruelty lodged by an advocacy group and documented by an undercover investigator working as a lab employee.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a complaint in May with the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, which is part of the National Institutes for Health, contending that UNC researchers violated several of the office’s guidelines.
PETA filed a similar complaint in April 2002, and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare officially closed that investigation a week before the most recent accusations. Both focused on experiments conducted in the Thurston-Bowles Building.
PETA urged the National Institutes of Health to suspend federal funds to UNC for research involving animals until the University was in full compliance with the standards set by the office of lab animal welfare.
UNC officials say that there are no major violations of the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare standards and that the current attention by PETA constitutes harassment.
PETA officials said the investigation did not intend to single out UNC but to expose shortcomings in federal oversight. “The reason we chose to send an investigator to UNC was because we wanted to see whether they actually had improved conditions for lab animals,” said Kate Turlington, investigations liaison for PETA and the undercover investigator in 2002. “What we found were the same violations occurring with the same regularity.”
Tony Waldrop ’74, vice chancellor for research and economic development, said PETA refused to work with the University to substantiate claims of cruelty. Investigations by administrators revealed few infractions, he said.
“We have a very strong program because it is the right thing to do,” he said. “Researchers will only be successful if they follow the rules. It is in no one’s best interest to violate the [Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare] guidelines.”
After the first investigation, UNC suspended the animal-research privileges of two researchers, put two others on probation and changed the management of Thurston-Bowles after the resignation of the animal-facility manager. Several other researchers were directed to modify their research procedures.
Waldrop said the additional scrutiny after the first round of allegations made the animal-care program stronger. Inspectors from the International Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, a voluntary organization, visited UNC in 2002 after the first complaint. The association certified and continues to accredit the University.
However, Turlington said investigators with the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare did not do enough to ensure UNC fixed the problems from the first investigation. “The NIH’s policy of allowing federally funded institutions to police themselves is unacceptable,” she said.
Lesley Marson, chair of UNC’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee that oversees the use of animals in experiments, said that all investigators are thoroughly trained in animal-use guidelines. In addition to receiving Web-based and hands-on training, researchers are certified and receive regular updates, she said.
“I use animals in research, and I care about animals,” Marson said. “I want to make sure everyone involved in animal research is properly trained.”
In addition to defending the University’s animal-care policy, Waldrop praised the researchers’ achievements. “Virtually every week there are press releases coming out about new findings our scientists have made about diseases like cystic fibrosis and alcoholism,” he said. “Suspending federal money wouldn’t only be harmful to researchers, it would be harmful to the citizens of North Carolina.”
Turlington said the emphasis on research leaves lab animals vulnerable. “The veterinarians are researchers,” Turlington said. “And all the [Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee] members are researchers. There is no one there to put the animals first.”