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Animal activists assail UAF over the death of a dozen muskox

Kelsey Gobroski/The Sun Star
October 18, 2011

On Oct. 10, watchdog group Stop Animal Exploitation NOW sent out a press release demanding a federal fine and extensive investigation into animal welfare at UAF. Though university spokespeople say the problems in animal care outlined in the press release have been rectified, SAEN’s actions come near the end of what has been, at best, a troubling year at the school’s Large Animal Research Station (LARS).

“Overall, the staff and administration of [LARS] have shown a total disregard for the health and well-being of the animals in their care…” Michael A. Budkie, SAEN executive director wrote. He was referring to 12 muskoxen that died of malnutrition in late 2010 and early 2011 – ultimately, the station lost a third of its herd.

SAEN’s accusations come on the heels of a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on August 30. In it, the federal agency asks the university to correct multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act including poor communication, insufficient employees to properly care for the animals, and inappropriate merging of job duties that led to conflicts of interests.

The university says it addressed the issues even before the USDA released its report. The report is based on regular checkups and a summary by a consultant who came in December 2010. The consultant has worked for the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International.

The university has kept the USDA in the loop during throughout the entire situation, according to John Blake, UAF’s attending veterinarian.

“ This was a terrible thing that happened, and we’ve taken steps … to make sure that something like that doesn’t happen again,” said UAF spokesperson Marmian Grimes.

It seems impossible that a dozen Arctic mammals could falter under the care of a research station that prides itself in its animal nutrition research. The cause of the deaths was listed as malnutrition, but it’s actually far more complicated. At the root of the problem, those familiar with the situation at LARS say, is a dysfunctional oversight system burdened with conflicts of interest.

“Research staff at [LARS] were instructed not to contact the Attending Veterinarian (AV) regarding problems of health and well-being due to concern with the AV’s additional role in the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) and perceived fear of reprisal by the ORI,” USDA animal care official Tracy Thompson wrote in the report. Faculty suggested staff who had concerns go first through the facility’s chain of command, before going to Blake and Veterinary Services.

Until this year, UAF also allowed research faculty to oversee the day-to-day care of the animal facilities, which could have led to some corner cutting for the sake of research, Blake said.

“We had a structural situation that fostered this silo-ed mentality with poor communication,” Blake said.

Extended Coverage of Large Animal Research Station (LARS) Muskoxen Deaths

In addition to interviews with past and present staff, faculty and animal care officials; this extended coverage includes a multimedia timeline, documents and graphics.

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