Education

Dead ferrets at University of Iowa prompt federal complaint

Group seeks $70,000 fine: 'The university's negligence killed innocent mothers and their newborn children'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

IOWA CITY — An Ohio-based animal advocacy group that monitors research facilities nationally for abuse violations has filed a complaint against the University of Iowa related to the deaths of at least seven ferrets in one of its labs.

Stop Animal Exploitation Now, the nonprofit that goes by SAEN, filed its complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s western region in Fort Collins, Colo., on Monday, according to a copy of the complaint. It asked for an immediate investigation and a fine of at least $70,000, citing a letter UI officials sent the National Institutes of Health in December reporting an animal care technician on Oct. 29 found a dead female ferret and two dead kits in a cage.

Another female appeared to be in active labor, prompting the technician to contact veterinary and lab staff. They removed the dead animals and indicated all remaining females, called “jills,” were pregnant.

“The jills were separated and cages appropriately identified as breeder animals,” according to the UI letter.

Staff then monitored the laboring jill, who produced several dead kids, the UI reported. That jill, in poor condition, was euthanized, and a necropsy found more kits in utero. The animals were delivering five to 10 days before expected — pregnant jills typically are separated six to 10 days before anticipated labor, according to the letter.

The two jills in question were the first bred to a new genetically modified male, and UI officials reported being “unclear if the cause of early abortion and jill health are linked to a non-specific mutation.”

The university reported retraining the lab and reinforcing the “necessity for appropriate labeling of animal cages as breeders to allow separation and transfer to proper caging.”

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“Future pregnancies will be closely monitored from this new FO genetically engineered hob to determine if this premature parturition is a trait associated with the zygote engineering,” according to UI letter.

In a statement provided to The Gazette on Tuesday, the university reported taking the health and safety of animals in its care “very seriously” and involving its Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee immediately after the incident in question.

“After looking into the matter, (the committee) ordered retraining of the research team’s lab staff, implemented new protocol to ensure the situation wouldn’t be repeated in the future, and notified the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare in the National Institutes of Health, the funding agency for this research, as required by the agency,” according to the UI statement.

The research behind the incident involved advancing treatments for cystic fibrosis — a progressive, genetic disease that causes lung infections and limits patients’ ability to breathe, according to Stephen Pradarelli, strategic communications director for the UI Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development.

The lab involved is part of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology in the UI Carver College of Medicine. National Institutes of Health records show the project began in September 2014 and is slated to continue through May 2019, receiving since its inception $3.3 million in federal support. It’s current funding cycle through May involves a grant budget of $809,552.

SAEN, in its complaint, called the UI incident a clear violation of the Animal Welfare Act. It cited several sections of the federal act, including one requiring adequate veterinary care and qualified personnel.

“The lab staff were so inept in this area that they had not even separated the pregnant animals and labeled the cages as breeders, which may have been the cause (in part) of the lack of observation for the pregnant animals,” according to SAEN’s complaint.

“This incident clearly demonstrates that University of Iowa staff is either unwilling or unable to comply with federal regulations relevant to even the most basic aspects of animal husbandry, such adequate veterinary care.”

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SAEN requested UI receive the maximum penalty — $10,000 per infraction or per animal, according to Michael Budkie, the group’s executive director.

“The university’s negligence killed innocent mothers and their newborn children,” he said.

Budkie told The Gazette the number of incidents involving negligent death of regulated species is “relatively infrequent.”

“We haven’t filed a complaint like this based on this kind of documentation against the University of Iowa in recent memory,” he said.

The university did get into trouble with the USDA in early 2016 when one of its research goats — who was nicknamed “William” — escaped from its research park in Coralville. The Department of Agriculture cited the university for violating the section of the Animal Welfare Act that requires research institutions to handle animals as “expeditiously and carefully as possible in a manner that does not cause trauma, overheating, excessive cooling, behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort.”

UI officials — in response to the Jan. 29, 2016 goat escape that launched a 10-day chase, gripped the community, and consumed local law enforcement time — vowed to review policies, practices, procedures, personnel, and training at the lab and assess facilities and equipment.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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