Fired Whistleblower Fights On for Animals in Research

In November 2012, the industry journal Lab Animal published an extraordinary profile of licensed veterinary technologist Santina Caruso, entitled “Working with animals is ‘in her blood.’” Why was this feature extraordinary? Because she had filed a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit—usually the kiss of death in animal research—in 2010 against The Jackson Laboratory, one of the world’s top suppliers of mice for research and the recipient of tens of millions of research dollars annually from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The lawsuit, which went to trial last year and is currently on appeal, gives a rare glimpse into the monumental challenges faced by animal care personnel who report animal welfare concerns to prevent needless suffering and ensure compliance with animal welfare laws. These are the workers most likely to see suffering and noncompliance—and to fear illegal retaliation for reporting.

Ms. Caruso says she supports providing humane care while working to reach scientific goals; this and her incontrovertible skills resulted in Jackson’s hiring her in 2008 to help improve mouse care. They needed her because in 2003, due to Jackson’s veterinary care shortcomings, the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) placed the institution on “deferred accreditation,” meaning it retained its accreditation but was charged with fixing the issues. (Under oath, Jackson’s attending veterinarian­—who was also an AAALAC trustee—explained that accreditation would be revoked only if a lab gave AAALAC “the finger”; otherwise, AAALAC will work with them for “years.”)

In her 3.5 months at Jackson, Ms. Caruso repeatedly raised animal welfare concerns about two NIH-funded projects. She reported that adult mice were having their toes cut off, without anesthesia. Toe amputation is primarily done to identify mice and collect genetic material. Jackson’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) never approved this painful, archaic procedure.

Most importantly, she reported that instead of being humanely euthanized in a timely manner, quadriplegic mice were dying of starvation and dehydration because they couldn’t reach food and water. Even Jackson’s veterinarians and human resources director felt that it was reasonable to report these problems, and that Ms. Caruso had done so in good faith. Yet, at trial, the veterinarian in charge of clinical research care stated that Ms. Caruso’s reports of animal welfare concerns contributed to her termination.

This veterinarian also stated that the IACUC could not modify anything, including euthanasia criteria, once it had approved the protocol. Jackson’s attorney repeated this blatant misstatement of the law multiple times. Actually, IACUCs are federally mandated to perform ongoing reviews of approved protocols, and are authorized by the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (which also mandates minimizing pain and distress, and applies to all NIH-funded research) to modify an already-approved protocol. Indeed, the Jackson IACUC, based on Ms. Caruso’s reports, did modify the endpoint criteria for euthanasia.

But the jury repeatedly heard Jackson misrepresent the law and facts. Despite Jackson’s attending veterinarian praising her “concern for the welfare” of the mice and “willingness to go the extra mile to improve their situation,” the lab’s attorney accused her of “very cruel[ly]” making these very mice suffer for “days” to manufacture evidence. AWI strongly believes that Ms. Caruso did not receive a fair trial—one of the many reasons we are supporting her appeal.

After Jackson fired her, she filed a whistleblower complaint with NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), which requested that Jackson’s IACUC investigate. That investigation not only vindicated her—Jackson admitted that its endpoint euthanasia criteria were unclear and ill-defined, and were consequently modified—but also found systemic issues. The IACUC took the grave step of suspending one of the NIH-funded research projects she had reported. OLAW concluded that her complaint was merited and contributed positively to animal welfare. (Meanwhile, the researcher, who has since moved to another institution, continues to receive NIH funding—over $1.5 million in grants since 2008.)

Unconscionably, the Animal Welfare Act—the primary federal law regulating the treatment of animals in research—does not cover mice or rats, though they are far and away the animals most commonly subject to experimentation. Therefore, it is all the more vital that individuals within research facilities safeguard these animals—and that IACUCs fulfill their responsibility to minimize animal suffering. Compliance and proper animal care depend upon what NIH calls “enforced self-regulation”—through IACUCs.

AWI commends Ms. Caruso for her dedication to each individual mouse, even when it meant the loss of her job, and for her determination to prove that she acted in good faith to prevent senseless suffering. As she wrote to OLAW six months after her termination: “I have zero regrets. I know I did the absolute correct thing.”