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Havoc in the herd – Extended Coverage

Kelsey Gobroski / Sun Star Reporter
Oct. 18, 2011

Chancellors memo - click for larger version

An animal rights group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Oct. 10 when it discovered UAF violated several provisions of the Animal Welfare Act. Those violations led to the deaths of a dozen muskoxen in fall 2010 and spring 2011.

A year ago, animal officials at UAF and Washington State University scrambled to find the cause of a string of muskox deaths at the Large Animal Research Station (LARS). They ran blood tests, performed necropsies – animal autopsies – and poured through checkup records for an answer.

SAEN letter - click for larger version

Slowly, the story came into focus: the animals starved.  They didn’t starve because of a food shortage, but because they didn’t get the right kind of food – they lacked the right balance of vitamin supplements, despite years of research into the animals’ dietary needs. Malnutrition killed an unprecedented third of the herd. The UAF administration promised to overhaul the way it handled animal research.

Muskoxen resemble a mix of animals, like something a child might draw after reading “Where the Wild Things Are.” They have pointy dog ears, curly horns, Eeyore-shaped

USDA report - click for larger version

heads, and long skirts of brown hair over dainty white legs. Scientists use the herd to study everything from reproduction to diet. The station leads tours in the summer, giving visitors a glimpse into the habits of this cold-tolerant beast.

University officials say they have resolved the issue at LARS. Still, UAF has a history of communication problems within its animal care system.

What led to this malnutrition may never be known – but the Aug. 30 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report gives some possible explanations.

In early 2010, the administration removed the on-site LARS supervisor from his position, and student employees took over much of the work. Many of the chores – fertilizing, weighing the animals – didn’t get done as often, according to the USDA.

Forage may have run low in 2010 when seven animals lived in a pen built for no more than five, according to Washington State University (WSU).

Someone (the USDA report does not specify who) told employees to not contact Veterinary Services, for fear of reprisal. Chronic health problems went underreported, according to the USDA.

LARS also changed the muskoxen’s diet without going through the customary approval process, according to the report.

The report is based primarily on a routine visit in August and on the findings of a consultant who came in December. The consultant has worked for the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International.

“[The USDA was] kept abreast of this whole process from square one,” attending veterinarian John Blake said.

Former UAF institutional official Bob Shefchik wrote up a list of changes in May with the guidance of the consultant’s report and the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).

Animal care now falls into Vice Chancellor for Research Mark Myers’s hands. Shefchik’s plan spelled out specific responsibilities for animal care personnel. It laid out the university’s plans to split apart jobs that were conflicts of interest. The plan described a new Animal Facility Advisory Group, but that suggestion is still under discussion. The plan budgeted for more staff at LARS, taking responsibilities from student employees. The university is still looking for one more person to work at LARS.

“Pretty much all the significant changes have occurred,” Blake said.

2008 vs 2010 Weight

Since 1996, the animal rights group Stop the Exploitation of Animal’s Now! (SAEN) has filed similar complaints about universities across the nation.

“We monitor all labs in the U.S. via the USDA website, federal records, internal records, etc.,” SAEN Executive Director Michael Budkie said in an email.

On Oct. 10, Budkie wrote a letter to the regional director of the USDA. He urged the department to look into the muskox deaths with greater scrutiny and levy the maximum fine against the university for the violations outlined in the Aug. 30 report.

SAEN’s response comes nearly a year after the muskox deaths. The letter does not acknowledge the recent changes to the UAF animal care system.

The USDA summary was released after the muskox herd recovered.  There aren’t any consequences once the university complies with recommendations, according to Marmian Grimes, a spokesperson for UAF.

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

The university addressed every Animal Welfare Act concern. However, UAF has a history of muskox deaths and animal-care overhaul, although the two have never been officially linked. Despite the sudden die-offs and the system’s quick fix, the real concern lies in the long term. The system is constantly changing and the muskoxen are dying – slowly.

A juvenile bull muskox stands on top of a pile of dirt at the Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. April 27, 2011. Photo by Heather Bryant.

The UAF administration has relied on Blake’s leadership for quite some time. He came to UAF in 1988, and worked as both a researcher and a veterinarian at UAF. Back then, he conducted muskox nutrition research with Perry Barboza, who was in charge of LARS until November 2010. Animal research regulation was scattered across departments, creating a haphazard system.

The administration centralized the system in 2000 by creating the Office of Research Integrity. Blake stepped down as researcher and oversaw both that office and Veterinary Services.

To the research faculty, this was a conflict of interest. Human medical care doesn’t work this way. “The EMT shows up and provides care to the person, without thinking about the legal ramifications of what the person has been involved in,” IACUC member Kelly Drew said.

Soon, research faculty across the animal care system – including those at LARS – asked staff to come to them with concerns before going to Blake.

“I’m not sure whether that’s a mixture of compliance concerns, or whether some of it is turf issues, ego … We had a structural situation that fostered this silo-ed mentality with poor communication,” Blake said.

Researchers worried their projects would get cited when they asked for advice.

“Well, I can understand why they might be concerned about that,” Blake said. Reporting a problem to the same person tasked with meting out punishment might give a researcher pause. Everyone should feel comfortable with reporting concerns directly to the veterinarians, but top-tier faculty encouraged staff to tell the problems to them first.

This is how things were when the muskoxen started dying.[slideshow]

Communication with Veterinary Services wasn’t working and the centralized system merged too many jobs. The muskoxen were dying, fast, and Blake needed a way to grab the reins and drive the herd to safety before things spiraled more out of control.

The university placed the herd in critical care, and Blake took over until he could be sure they were on the way to recovery.

Blake has large glasses, a soft voice and shiny hair in patchy shades of gray. He left the Office of Research Integrity and now works from the Biological Research and Diagnostics Facility. He leads the newly instated Animal Resource Center, the vet-driven ultimate authority of animal care and husbandry. He is still in charge of LARS and visits a few times a week, he said.

Management Flowchart

There are other players in the animal care game besides John Blake. There’s the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee – a team that includes six researchers and a community member in addition to Blake. Professors Kelly Drew and Sasha Kitayskiy lead the committee. IACUC acts like a judiciary branch.

IACUC  suggested adding a congress to the animal care overhaul: a committee made up of research faculty. The previous vice chancellor for research approved this, but new Vice Chancellor Myers, who began in April, remains hesitant to implement it, Blake said. The added bureaucracy may be superfluous.

As soon as the immediate problems were dealt with – veterinarians writing people up and researchers overseeing facilities – the various branches reached a stalemate. So far, the university’s left with clearly delineated veterinary care, but the system is still centralized. The university now reaches no conflict of interest when it defers most oversight to the man who knows the system the best.

IACUC, meanwhile, oversees compliance and makes recommendations to the Office of Research Integrity, but the ORI’s attitude toward the suggestions changed during the administration changeover. The partnership is unsteady in the flux.

Stillbirths graph

Muskoxen at LARS have periodically died of malnutrition since the 90s, though never to this extent. Despite their size, muskoxen are frail. When reintroduced to the wild, other herds collapse under poor forage conditions. It’s possible this chronic condition could become more prominent as a result of anything from mold in the hay to inbreeding. Stillbirths, a sign of mineral deficiency, have gradually risen. The entire herd could be declining, a gradual loss that culminated in this sudden string of deaths.

Music and biology student Megan Hahn lived at LARS beginning in August 2009, before these events. She didn’t notice any tension at first, she said. She remembers Perry Barboza, a nutritionist who was in charge of LARS until November 2010, told her one evening that her on-site supervisor, Bill Hauer, was going on administrative leave and would be gone for about six months.

“Well, is he coming back?” Hahn said she remembers asking. “When he left, everything started going downhill,” she said in an interview on April 27. After Hauer, the station stretched staff tight,

Barboza and Hauer declined to comment on the muskoxen and LARS administration. Barboza provided The Sun Star with a copy of an email he sent to Chancellor Brian Rogers on Nov. 23, 2010.

“More staff would not have increased the frequency of weighing, feeding or the attention given to muskoxen because we were following the established protocols for care in a timely fashion,” Barboza wrote.

Veterinary Services was slow to respond to the muskox health problems, and researchers couldn’t act without Blake’s approval, Barboza told Rogers. “In September 2010, IAB personnel were caught between acting to safeguard the health of animals and complying with university policy while waiting for direction from the attending veterinarian,” he wrote.

“A prosecutorial approach to investigating the problem ignores these long-term causes,” Barboza wrote. “So far we have succeeded in telling the world that our herd is dying of a problem we have known about for 20 years!”

University officials agree that the muskox deaths were linked to a broken animal care system. It’s difficult to tease apart what broke. It could be because of a conflict of interests – either with John Blake, or with faculty overseeing the day-to-day care of their research animals.

Perhaps it was money issues – budgets that cut staff without replacing them and lay compliance power with an attending veterinarian who also has an eye for logistics.

Maybe the university is too centralized – faculty need to be better represented. Maybe it is not centralized enough,  and a a three-tiered system of husbandry and veterinary staff, researchers, and a judiciary branch will solve things.

Two females with new calves on a warm day in the spring of 2011. The calves are two of four that were born in the spring of 2011. May 26, 2011. Photo by Heather Bryant

The research herd could be dying outside of human error.

The immediate concern is lifted. At LARS, the herd now seems to be doing well. There was more insulating qiviut combed out in August than after an entire winter in May, Blake said. Hahn went there to visit recently – she left in August 2010, before the string of deaths began.

“I was at LARS last week and the muskox are looking fantastic now! They’re all fat and healthy and the new babies are getting so big! It’s a relief to see the herd recovering,” Hahn wrote.

The university drastically overhauled who oversees animal welfare twice since the turn of the millennium. Each time, there was a breakdown of communication – first from decentralization, then from over-centralization. The university can survive a broken system; it limped along for a decade last time. These new changes are quick, reactionary overhaul. They may not fix the university’s deeper flaws.

Officials and researchers have worked together for years. Over that time, they’ve disagreed then made amends, again and again. The smallest personality conflicts have time to rub against one another until the university’s character is defined by passive allegiances. The disagreements can be on a small scale – between a researcher and his caretaker subordinate. There can be tension on a larger scale, when research faculty aren’t represented save for a seven-member judiciary system.

The administration saw these conflicts, pulled together a document that worked around them, placed power into Blake’s familiar hands and double-checked that, legally, there would no longer be a conflict of interest.

Perhaps the centralized system felt its first growing pains in 2010, and fine adjustments and clearer segregation of compliance and animal care will smooth over fear of repercussion and mend communication breakdown.

But if the administration’s static social structure fostered this breakdown the effects might not become apparent for another decade.

The Sun Star: LARS muskoxen deaths trigger investigation Timeline

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