In March, ABC News broke a nine-month HSUS undercover investigation at one of the nation’s largest primate labs, New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where 325 chimpanzees and 6,000 other primates are confined. During her tenure as a lab technician, the HSUS investigator witnessed deprivation, isolation, and mishandling of the animals, and she captured footage revealing 338 alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act—the very minimum standards of care that research facilities are required to adhere to by law.
© The HSUS
A chimpanzee at New Iberia Research Center.
Following the investigation, we met with representatives of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service—the division responsible for laboratory inspections related to animal welfare—to discuss adherence to the Animal Welfare Act, including amendments that require consideration of the "psychological well-being" of primates in research. Unfortunately, nearly 25 years after these amendments were passed and regulations established, there is still no clear policy for institutions or inspectors to follow, resulting in laboratories essentially policing themselves on the matter—or not at all.
But thanks to our investigation and our meeting with the agency, we’ve seen progress toward ensuring that the law is implemented, with the USDA agreeing to put together a plan of action for inspectors. We’ll work with USDA to push this forward to the best of our ability.
In March, we also outlined our investigative findings and documentation of NIRC’s apparent Animal Welfare Act violations in a 108-page complaint delivered to the USDA. Less than two weeks later, the USDA sent four inspectors to the facility. The agency released the results of that inspection and cited the lab with Animal Welfare Act violations reflecting much of what our investigator documented. Among the violations: failure to provide adequate heat to primates in outdoor housing, causing the amputation of some monkeys’ tails due to frostbite (NIRC had previously been cited for this in 2004); failure to justify why primates used in experiments are isolated from one another; and failure to adequately monitor primates under sedation to ensure they properly recover (our investigator, you may recall, documented chimpanzees and monkeys crashing to the concrete floors while sedated). One of the saddest notations in the USDA report described baby monkeys who, despite “vigorous” attempts, were unable to wake their unmonitored and anesthetized mothers.
It’s reassuring that the USDA appears to be taking our concerns about NIRC seriously, but it’s alarming that none of these problems were previously documented in a September 2008 USDA inspection report of the facility—the same time our undercover investigator was employed there and capturing troubling abuses on tape.
USDA has a tremendously difficult charge, with a staggeringly large number of facilities it is obligated to inspect but only 100 or so personnel to get the job done. The new Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, is a highly capable leader of the agency and he understands that some strategic decisions must be made on inspections, with too few bodies for too many institutions.
As the Secretary grapples with these severe resource limitations, we hope he’ll have inspectors focus on facilities with large numbers of animals as well as those facilities that have the potential for serious animal welfare problems. Also, USDA must pay special attention to institutions that are chronic violators of the law, and must mete out serious penalties for those who disregard or fail to honor the basic standards of care that the American public has come to expect. The USDA's lenient and lax approaches of the past haven’t done the job, if you take NIRC and other deficient facilities as barometers. Until such changes can be instituted and a new culture of strict enforcement developed within the inspection ranks at USDA, I am certain that HSUS undercover investigations will be needed to highlight gaps and problems in the current regulatory system and within the regulated industries themselves.