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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited the University of Iowa for mishandling a research goat that escaped from its research park last month, and the agency could assess penalties — although it hasn't to date.
In response to the Jan. 29 escape that sent authorities on a 10-day chase and had community members calling in tips, UI officials said they're reviewing relevant policies, practices, procedures, personnel, and training at the lab responsible for the animal. UI compliance staff and the university's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee also are assessing facilities and equipment, said Stephen Pradarelli, UI strategic communications director.
'Many measures have already been put in place; more may be forthcoming,' Pradarelli said in an emailed statement. 'To protect the security of our facilities, faculty, staff, student researchers, and the animals, we cannot provide more detailed information about our corrective measures.'
The USDA cited UI for violating the Animal Welfare Act, which 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.'
A USDA inspection report in response to the incident said the goat escaped its 'transport enclosure' and ran into the woods near UI's research park in Coralville on Jan. 29 while being transferred from a housing facility to a vehicle. It was recovered Feb. 8 at an intersection between Coralville and North Liberty.
'Improper handling practices have led to the animal escape,' according to the report. 'An animal escape can cause distress, trauma, and/or physical harm to the animal.'
Regarding the UI response, the report states the facility is reviewing and altering its transport procedure, developing new large animal transport protocols, and altering the premises to prevent a future escape.
Pradarelli said this week's citation is the only one related to the university's 'self-reporting of the goat's escape.' The university did not immediately provide information on whether it has been cited for other non-related research animal incidents.
The citation could come with a fine, according to Pradarelli, but only the citation has been handed down so far. Costs of the search, including loss of lab time and personnel expenses, is expected to come in under $10,000, Pradarelli said.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, also filed a complaint with the USDA related to last month's goat escape, and it wrote a letter to UI President Bruce Harreld asking him to send the goat to a sanctuary once recovered.
The goat, nicknamed William, is involved in a $1.4 million research project with the UI Department of Orthopedics aimed at better understanding post-traumatic osteoarthritis in hopes of developing treatment for the degenerative joint disease, which affects, for example, military members and athletes.
The National Institutes of Health is funding the research, which is scheduled to continue through August. Despite requests from PETA and other groups across the country, Pradarelli said the goat has resumed its role in the study.
'Because the animal is part of ongoing, federally funded research, the University of Iowa is not in a position to consider offers from members of the public or other organizations to take over its care,' Pradarelli said in statement.
After the goat's capture on Feb. 8, Alka Chandna, senior laboratory oversight specialist with PETA, wrote another letter to the university offering to help find the goat a better place to 'live out his years in peace.'
In her letter, Chandna detailed some of the goat's research involvement, saying he will be subjected to 'acute cartilage injury,' meaning it 'will likely suffer debilitating pain for weeks after the injuries are inflicted, only to eventually be killed so that his body can be dissected and analyzed.'
'William has captured the hearts of people across the country, who see in his escape the universal desire to be free,' she said. 'He does not deserve to be tormented, killed, and dissected.'
In response to that letter, Pradarelli said all procedures in the study 'were done under anesthesia, and post-procedural pain relief was provided.'
Chandna said in addition to penalties against the university, she'd like to see the federal government better scrutinize the need for animals in experiments.
'The question needs to be asked whether it's ethically justifiable to deliberately inflict pain and distress on goats, who are sensitive, intelligent, and socially complex animals,' she said. 'The NIH should undertake scientific reviews to evaluate whether using animals in orthopedics experiments actually produces results that are relevant to human beings.'