USDA cites Harvard in deaths of 41 mice

The US Department of Agriculture has cited Harvard University for the death of 41 mice in a research laboratory earlier this year. Eleven adult and 30 young rodents became dehydrated in April after a connection in a system that supplies drinking water became loose.

The official warning, released Tuesday, is considered an enforcement action signaling a violation of the US Animal Welfare Act, but does not carry a fine or other penalty.

Animal research at Harvard has been under scrutiny in recent months. Four monkeys have died since 2010, and others were injured at the New England Primate Research Center, a Harvard Medical School facility in Southborough, prompting the school to suspend new research and make significant procedural changes in the care of the animals.

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The USDA is looking into those incidents, which could result in fines of up to $10,000 for each violation of federal law. The mouse deaths will not be considered as part of that investigation because they are “totally unrelated,” said USDA spokesman Dave Sacks.

The Animal Welfare Act does not cover typical laboratory mice, Sacks said, but those that died were a species of Peromyscus mice, considered wild and not bred specifically for research. They died in a laboratory that is part of the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Management of that facility is distinct from that of the primate center.

Animal welfare advocates suggested that the latest incident reflects a systemic problem at Harvard. The death of a primate center monkey in December also was the result of dehydration from a failed water system.

“These are not isolated incidents,” said Justin Goodman, associate director for laboratory investigations at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which generally opposes animal research. “These incidents reflect a culture of negligence and callousness at the animal labs at Harvard.”

The mouse deaths made Michele Cunneen, a laboratory animal consultant in Natick, question whether staff in the Harvard labs have the time and resources they need to properly care for the animals in their charge.

“The problem here is this is a pattern,” Cunneen said. “The pattern continues to exist despite claims to the contrary that they have done all that they can do.”

Alan Dittrich — president of the Massachusetts Society for Medical Research, a group partly focused on the humane treatment of animals whose members include research organizations and their suppliers — said there is little connection between the mouse and primate deaths.

They occurred in facilities that share an affiliation, but have separate staffs and oversight, he said.

The watering system was the only one on campus without an automatic, all-day alarm, Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal said in an e-mail. An alarm has since been installed, he said.

“Harvard continues to be committed to the proper treatment and humane care of mice and other animals being used as research subjects,” Neal said.

News of the warning comes a week after a committee released highlights of an evaluation, done at Harvard’s request, of procedures at the primate center.

The group recommended new senior positions, a review of training, and improved communication among staff members, among other measures.

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