BY LARA ZADE
Daily News Editor
Published May 4, 2009
The University of Michigan Health System is under fire from two animal rights groups following reports of misconduct in University laboratory experiments and improper use of federal funding.
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Alka Chandra, a laboratory oversight specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said that documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed 33 violations of animal treatment by the University over a six month period.
“We have never seen anything like this before in terms of number of violations in such a limited period of time,” Chandra said.
In light of the findings, Chandra submitted a letter on behalf of PETA requesting that the National Institute of Health revoke the University’s assurances — the permits that allow researchers to conduct their experiments.
In the letter, which was addressed to NIH Director of the Office of Animal Welfare Patricia Brown, Chandra wrote that the University displays a “culture of contempt” toward animal welfare.
Chandra cited examples of University researchers letting animals die of starvation, dehydration and being trapped in cages that caught on fire. She also said that a University researcher injected a rabbit with an unauthorized anesthetic that damaged its ear and eye so severely that it had to be euthanized.
Chandra also blamed the University for a violation of federal guidelines, in which the University billed the NIH $1.4 million for experiments that were no longer approved by the University Committee on Use and Care of Animals—the University’s internal oversight committee.
In response to Chandra’s allegations, UMHS issued a statement that said the injuries reported by PETA were all “rare and isolated events, not routine occurrences” and that the incidents were “identified and remedied swiftly.”
Additionally, UMHS stated that the information PETA cited was already known by the University and policies have been appropriately corrected to prevent future protocol violations.
Don Ralbovsky, an NIH spokesperson, wrote in an e-mail interview that most research institutions handle such incidents internally.
“Compliance actions against institutions are rare because institutions are usually able to address incidents successfully and take appropriate actions to prevent recurrence,” he wrote.
Kara Gavin, UMHS director of public relations, said the University paid back the $1.4 million in federal grants last year after it discovered the billing mistake and cited a software malfunction as the source of the problem.
Along with PETA’s allegations, Animalearn, the educational division of the American Anti-Vivisection Society, released a report titled “Dying to Learn” on Apr. 27, which expressed concern over how some universities — including the University of Michigan — use animals from shelters in their laboratory experiments.
The state of Michigan allows the selling of animals to research facilities by Class B dealers, which are licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture to buy and sell animals not bred on the dealers' property.
In its report, Animalearn said it seeks to stop the use of animals sold from Class B dealers for educational courses in research institutions, with an overarching goal of eliminating the use of animals in laboratory research altogether.
Between September 2004 and October 2008, the University bought 94 dogs and four cats from R&R Research Breeder Inc., a Class B dealer, for use in medical education services.
In March UMHS ended the practice of using live dogs for surgery practice in the University Medical School after it was scrutinized by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — a non-profit organization that promotes ethical research and experiment methods.
In addition, officials in Montcalm County voted last week to end a deal providing cats and dogs from the local shelter to R&R Research Breeder Inc.
Although both animal rights groups were concerned over the University’s treatment and purchase of animals for laboratory experiments, Chandra said an even bigger issue is the lax behavior of the oversight committees, which approve the protocol for experiments with animal testing at universities.
“The thing that strikes us is that all of these really cruel experiments are being approved by the oversight committee, which tells us that the oversight committee isn’t doing its job,” she said.