OLAW Oversight Fails to Protect Mice in Research

Institutions that receive Public Health Service (PHS) funding and conduct research using live vertebrate animals are required by law to have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) that oversees the treatment of those animals and ensures compliance with the law. In a recent article (see AWI Quarterly, summer 2023), we presented a case study illustrating IACUC-approved misuse and mistreatment of rats at Baylor University. Although Baylor’s treatment of rodents may be highly questionable, it is the type of conduct that is often unchallenged by IACUCs because “compliant” and “humane” are not synonymous.

photo by HYUNGKEUN
photo by HYUNGKEUN

What happens, however, when an IACUC’s action (or inaction) is not merely permissive of inhumane treatment, but a dereliction of its own duty under the law? When this happens at PHS-funded institutions, the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) is supposed to intervene. Here, we present a second case study illustrating the abject failure of this system. 

In August 2022, a whistleblower contacted AWI and alleged long-standing animal neglect and deaths at the University of Missouri–Kansas City (UMKC) over the previous 17 months. The whistleblower alleged that on multiple occasions, mice had been found dead—in varying degrees of decomposition or partially eaten by cagemates—in cages with empty water bottles, even though UMKC’s IACUC had been repeatedly informed in writing that staff were finding cages with little or no water. Written complaints to the IACUC also reported cages with no food; cages dirty beyond acceptable levels (causing physical discomfort to the staff and the mice); mice left in wet cages overnight (risking hypothermia); unreported new litters (resulting in severe overcrowding); and inadequate training and staffing. In all this time, UMKC had allegedly failed to take any discernable action to prevent further neglect and deaths. 

OLAW relies heavily on mandatory self-reports to support its policy of “enforced self-regulation.” Institutions must submit an “Animal Welfare Assurance” attesting to the institution’s compliance with PHS Policy. According to OLAW, once it approves the Assurance, “the institution is in a position to regulate itself. … If the institution fails to self-regulate, the approval of the Assurance may be restricted or withdrawn by OLAW”—the result of which is a loss of funding.

AWI has since discovered that in the prior two years, UMKC had twice reported to OLAW that multiple mice had been found dead in cages with empty water bottles or, in one case, no water bottle at all. UMKC’s first self-report stated that the assumed causes of death were dehydration, and the second noted that UMKC’s own investigation “found evidence supporting complaints of dirty cages and inadequate water supply for some cages.” As mandated by PHS Policy, UMKC provided a plan for corrective action. After both reports, OLAW thanked UMKC for its cooperation and closed the case. 

In September 2022, AWI filed a complaint with OLAW regarding the whistleblower’s new allegations, making clear that enforced self-regulation had failed at UMKC. We urged OLAW to suspend UMKC’s PHS funds and pause the renewal of its Assurance, which was set to expire a few weeks later; conduct an unannounced inspection and an independent investigation; and reconstitute the IACUC. 

Despite these new allegations of systemic issues resulting in severe, ongoing animal suffering and death after UMKC twice assured OLAW that it had resolved the problems, OLAW’s only “intervention” was to email UMKC our letter and ask them to respond. In their response, UMKC admitted that several more mice had died in cages without water, yet claimed in this instance that they “cannot ascribe [these] deaths to lack of water.” Notwithstanding earlier admissions regarding dirty cages, UMKC also responded that cage cleanliness was a subjective matter. 

In response to this, OLAW observed that UMKC had seemingly failed to report these “reportable noncompliances” at the time they had occurred, and asked UMKC to report them retroactively. UMKC did that, and OLAW again expressed its appreciation and closed the matter for the third time in approximately two years. And even as this latest case of neglect and noncompliance was ongoing, OLAW renewed UMKC’s Assurance. 

Sadly, but utterly predictably, more animals have died at UMKC from lack of water in the year since AWI’s complaint to OLAW. In May 2023, UMKC self-reported a few such deaths. According to the whistleblower, however, other unreported deaths have also occurred.
Egregious violations spanning over three years, reported to and summarily “resolved” by OLAW each time despite ample evidence that the problem is systemic and ongoing, shows the system is broken. Following the latest self-report, OLAW actually concluded that the “prompt consideration of this matter by UMKC was consistent with the philosophy of institutional self-regulation,” that its actions to “resolve the issue and prevent recurrence were appropriate,” and that OLAW “appreciate[s] being informed of this matter and find[s] no cause for further action.”

OLAW has written that its relationship with labs is “based on trust.” Yet when UMKC blatantly violates that trust and fails to uphold a fundamental tenet of enforced self-regulation, OLAW’s response is to praise UMKC and put the matter to rest. OLAW is legally required to “suspend or revoke” funding after a “reasonable” opportunity for correction if it determines that the entity fails to meet applicable guidelines, yet it refuses to do so. 

Mice do not die of dehydration overnight—it takes days. Such outright neglect, and for something as basic as providing water, is cruelty, pure and simple. These egregious and ongoing violations—which affect mice on active research protocols funded by OLAW’s own agency—NIH—raise fundamental questions about oversight and compliance with the law at all levels. Effective intervention from OLAW in this case is all the more important because mice bred for use in research are not protected under the Animal Welfare Act. OLAW is all they have—which means they really have nothing.

UMKC has apparently not taken meaningful action to prevent these flagrant animal abuses from continuing. Absent consequences, why would they? This is the failed oversight system that animal researchers repeatedly claim is so effective—even onerous in its demands. Animal welfare laws may look good on paper, but are toothless if not enforced. This case provides a good example of how OLAW—the purported watch dog—is effectively a paper tiger.