Sept. 27, 2023: USDA settlement

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began an investigation of animal care at the University of Wisconsin–Madison following a complaint made by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an organization opposed to the use of animals in research. PETA’s allegations were based on information compiled by an individual who did not disclose they were working on PETA’s behalf while simultaneously obtaining employment at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center in 2020.

Despite these covert tactics, PETA did not uncover issues at UW–Madison. Rather, the alleged violations contained in the recent settlement between the university and USDA are all based on incidents identified and documented by UW–Madison employees, consistent with UW-Madison’s commitment to rigorous self-regulation. The settlement, which resolves the investigation and includes a $77,000 fine, covers incidents that occurred at UW–Madison between August of 2019 and June of 2022.

Research with animals is overseen in the United States by two federal agencies — USDA, which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, and the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, or OLAW. USDA conducts regular, unannounced inspections of institutions and facilities that house research animals, including UW–Madison. The university also sends reports on its own animal studies to OLAW when problems occur in animal care, housing, clinical treatment or the performance of research protocols. Within the university, animal care and research are monitored by institutional animal care and use committees (called IACUCs), specially trained veterinarians, animal care technicians, and staff dedicated to the thorough compliance and record-keeping tasks required to abide by federal laws and regulations and to ensure the safe conduct of research with animals.

UW–Madison scientists and animal care staff strive for laboratories that produce important knowledge and treatments in an environment that is safe and error-free for both researchers and animals. When staff commit errors or equipment fails, the university doesn’t accept those incidents as unpreventable. Instead, a thorough root-cause analysis is performed to identify the factors that led to the incident and steps are initiated to improve and refine work processes and procedures, retrain staff and upgrade equipment used to minimize the likelihood of future issues.

Studying animals is an important way — in many cases the only way — to answer crucial questions about basic biological processes and to ethically study diseases with often devastating consequences for humans and animals. UW–Madison researchers are committed to improving human and animal health and well-being. Furthermore, the university is committed to responsible and ethical research conducted with the help of skilled veterinarians and the oversight of campus committees, outside accreditation organizations, and federal agencies.

The USDA settlement — see the settlement here (PDF) — lists these citations:

9 C.F.R. § 3.80(a)(2)(iii) Primary enclosures.

9 C.F.R. § 2.38(f)(1) Miscellaneous. Handling.

USDA investigators noted 16 times from 2019 to 2022 in which non-human primates were injured — often by other non-human primates, staff errors or following equipment failures that allowed animals to exit their enclosures.

While USDA’s standard — and the university’s goal — is to have no such injuries among animals on campus, infrequent errors and equipment problems do occur.

In each case, veterinary care was provided promptly, and all non-human primates survived and recovered from their injuries. Each incident and the steps the university took in response were reported by UW–Madison veterinarians to IACUCs and OLAW and the veterinary attention and corrective actions were acknowledged by OLAW officials. In each case, deficient equipment was replaced or upgraded as appropriate and staff involved were retrained on procedures and the proper use of equipment.

All such incidents are investigated, and the circumstances reviewed by veterinary, compliance and laboratory staff who look for ways to prevent recurrence of the issues that led to animal injury. Their efforts have resulted in refinement of housing enclosure design, installation of additional and improved locks, and reconfiguration and redesign of transport equipment. Regular checks are performed to make sure doors are secured, including a duplicate check in many cases. Using positive reinforcement, animal behaviorists identify and work with animals that are particularly difficult to transfer. As a result, the rate of incidents resulting in injury is declining.

In the roughly three-year period covered by USDA’s review, UW–Madison’s largest non-human primate research facility transferred non-human primates from one enclosure to another more than 224,000 times, with 13 exits that resulted in injuries that required veterinary care. That amounts to fewer than one injury incident for every 17,200 transfers, or an incident in less than 0.006% of transfers. That is an improvement over the already vanishingly small rate — less than one injury per 16,000 transfers —from the previous 4 years. A person in the United States is more likely to be struck by lightning in their lifetime than a non-human primate is likely to be injured during one of the facility’s transfers.

In the course of research and routine care for non-human primates, UW–Madison animal care staff transfer animals for many reasons, including providing veterinary care, cleaning and maintenance of animal surroundings and the toys and manipulable devices provided for enrichment, and participating in research projects. These transfers involve opening and closing latches, locks and doors so that often large and nimble animals can move into a new space. These are the most common times for a non-human primate to exit its enclosure. These transfers are generally performed while the animals are conscious to greatly reduce the number of times the non-human primate must be anesthetized, thus reducing adverse side effects associated with anesthesia.

9 C.F.R. § 2.33(b) Attending veterinarian and adequate veterinary care.

Following a surgical procedure in September of 2020, two pigs were to receive pain medication every 6 hours. USDA noted that the schedule did not appear to have been met.

Pigs are social animals, housed together and provided food and water in a group setting. The medication intended for the two pigs was mixed with food that was shared by the animals. On the day following surgery, UW–Madison veterinarians noted that one of the pigs was showing possible signs of pain and that not all food had been eaten.

That evening, the veterinary staff ordered that the medication be administered separately to ensure that each pig received the full dose. Other than mild distress, there were no other negative outcomes in this study, and the pigs fully recovered.

The deviation from the experimental protocol and efforts to correct procedures were promptly reported to the IACUC and OLAW.

9 C.F.R. § 2.33(b) Attending veterinarian and adequate veterinary care.

In December 2020, a non-human primate assigned to an IACUC-approved protocol received the experimental compound when it should have received a control compound. Unfortunately, despite the immediate reaction of veterinary staff and their efforts to save the animal’s life, the non-human primate died. One of the important functions of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center is to conduct collaborative research with other institutions that could not be done without the center’s expertise. These studies sometimes include experimental drugs. In this instance, the drugs were provided by an outside research collaborator with ambiguous labeling indicating the agent the non-human primate received was the control drug intended for the specific animal. It was instead the experimental drug.

The event was reported to the IACUC and OLAW. The partnering institution was notified, and labeling is now clearly marked. There have been no other similar events since 2020.

9 C.F.R. § 3.75(c)(1) Housing facilities, general. Surfaces.

Once in August of 2021 and once in December of 2021, non-human primates became trapped between or within parts of their enclosures. In one instance, a non-human primate became entangled in a suspended ball providing enrichment in a group enclosure. In the other, a non-human primate recovered after receiving prompt veterinary attention.

When equipment contributes to the injury of animals, facilities and behavioral specialists inspect and replace similar equipment to prevent recurrence of comparable incidents.

These two events were reported to the IACUC and OLAW, which acknowledged the university’s corrective measures as appropriate.