Science in Mind

Documents reveal additional monkey care incidents at Harvard

Federal documents obtained by an animal activist group reveal previously undisclosed animal care issues within Harvard Medical School’s troubled primate research operations, including an incident in June 2012 when a rhesus monkey escaped from its cage, suffered cuts to its hand and tongue, injured another monkey’s hand, and bit an employee.

After a series of high-profile monkey deaths at Harvard Medical School’s New England Primate Research Center in Southborough, operations and animal care seemed to have gotten much better at the center, which is slated to wind down operations by 2015. Last month, Harvard was fined $24,036 for 11 violations of the Animal Welfare Act noted by inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture between February 2011 and July of 2012, but the institution’s animal care record after that period was nearly spotless, according to subsequent inspection reports. Harvard Medical School has primate research facilities in Southborough and on its Longwood campus.

The new documents, correspondence between Harvard Medical School officials and the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, detail two issues related to animal welfare that appear to be similar to previous incidents for which the university was cited and fined. The documents were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by Michael Budkie, executive director of the animal activist group Stop Animal Exploitation Now.

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In addition to the monkey that escaped its cage and injured itself, another monkey, and an employee in June 2012, a February 2013 letter details an incident at an unspecified Harvard primate facility during which a marmoset’s leg was fractured when its leg became stuck between the bars of its cage.

Similar incidents that occurred at Harvard’s primate facilities have occurred in the past and have resulted in citations and fines. For example, a squirrel monkey’s leg fracture was reported in January 2012 at the Southborough center. That violation was included in the list of infractions that resulted in the $24,000 fine, as were two incidents that involved primates escaping from their cages at Harvard animal research facilities.

“We self-reported these issues to all appropriate regulatory agencies after carefully reviewing our reporting practices, and then worked with them to address the issues in order to ensure the welfare and ethical treatment of all animals within our care,” Harvard Medical School said in a statement.

The injured rhesus monkey is described in detail in a letter written by Richard Mills, Harvard’s former executive dean for administration, who this summer left for a job at Dartmouth College. First, a catching net was used to try and capture the escaped monkey, which was then trapped behind a cage. An animal care employee put on gloves to catch the animal, but after he removed one glove, the animal bit his hand. Examination of the animal showed injuries to its hand and tongue.

“Two lacerations on the left hand that were sutured, a laceration to its tongue that was also sutured, an injury to the distal phalanx of the fourth right finger that was treated, and two broken metacarpals that were reduced and splinted,” the letter states. Another monkey’s hand was injured, as well.

Although the cage’s lock was deemed appropriately closed, the letter said the positioning of the lock allowed it to become disengaged, and policy changes were immediately made to prevent future incidents.

Budkie, the animal activist, said that the problems raise the question of whether the improvements to Harvard’s animal care process had been sufficient.

“In light of the fact that Harvard is a repeat offender with a significant history of Animal Welfare Act violations which have had serious consequences for animals including death and traumatic injuries, I must insist that at the completion of your investigation into these incidents you levy the largest fine allowable under the Animal Welfare Act against Harvard, or $10,000 per non-compliance,” Budkie wrote in a letter of complaint to the Agriculture Department.

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