While Primates Suffer, Research Labs Benefit from Paltry Fines, Lax USDA Oversight

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Photo by Khemika Kuhathongcharoen

Despite troubling animal welfare records, National Primate Research Centers stand to receive an additional $30 million in taxpayer funds this fiscal year.

Washington, DC—National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs) that experiment on nonhuman primates stand to gain an additional $30 million in taxpayer funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for fiscal year 2024, despite all seven receiving multiple citations deemed “critical” by US Department of Agriculture inspectors for primate injuries and deaths over the last decade, according to a new analysis by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).

The NIH’s proposed spending plan seeks $30 million in funding to “expand, remodel, renovate, or alter existing research facilities or construct new research facilities for nonhuman primate resource infrastructure” at the NPRCs. However, AWI analyzed USDA inspection reports that document multiple critical noncompliances with the federal Animal Welfare Act causing primate injuries and deaths related to staff carelessness or inadequate training and supervision — issues that would not be resolved through building renovations or expansions.

Citations are issued for “critical” compliance issues when they involve “a serious or severe adverse effect on the health and well-being of an animal,” but they do not automatically trigger fines under the law.

In a November 7 letter to leaders of the US House and Senate Appropriations Committees, AWI urged Congress to redirect the funds to instead further develop modern research technologies that do not rely on animals, citing the NPRCs’ “long and ongoing history of noncompliance with the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).”

“These research facilities complain about a monkey shortage, yet they can’t even properly care for the primates they already have,” said Eric Kleiman, a researcher for AWI’s Animals in Laboratories Program. “Why should taxpayers fund expansions at facilities with poor animal welfare records?”

Kleiman also noted that a US government official stated at a scientific committee meeting in 2022 that monkeys in Asia are being purchased as “futures” before they are even born. “Animals should not be treated as commodities,” Kleiman said.

The NPRC system was established by the federal government in the early 1960s, and the centers received $88 million in taxpayer money from the NIH last year largely to maintain their facilities. NPRCs are located at Emory University; Oregon Health & Science University; Texas Biomedical Research Institute; Tulane University; the University of California, Davis; the University of Washington; and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They are part of the broader primate research landscape that includes private companies, such as Labcorp, Charles River Laboratories, and Inotiv (parent company of Envigo). In 2022, the US Department of Justice reached a settlement with an Envigo breeding facility in Virginia to surrender approximately 4,000 beagles living in abusive conditions, after the USDA had failed to confiscate the animals — despite dozens of citations. Four days after the settlement, the USDA renewed Envigo’s breeding license.

The USDA has a longstanding pattern of issuing citations with no real repercussions. The lack of consequences should come as no surprise, since animal welfare enforcement represents less than one-tenth of 1% of the $475 billion available to the department last year.

In fact, USDA inspectors have documented a number of critical noncompliances for which no fines were issued, including monkeys dying because they were deprived of water or adequate veterinary care, left overnight outside of their enclosure, and strangled by chains holding improperly installed enrichment devices.

In multiple situations involving primate deaths, the USDA took no enforcement action; in several cases, the department waited too long and allowed the five-year statute of limitations for enforcement actions to expire.

In the last 15 months, all seven institutions have been cited by the USDA for primate-related critical noncompliances with the AWA, according to AWI’s analysis. Moreover, over the last decade, all have received multiple critical citations, yet it appears that only four institutions received fines during that time.*

More than 14,000 entities are currently regulated under the AWA, including breeders, exhibitors, dealers, and research facilities, and only 50 penalties have been levied by the USDA since December 2019. The amounts of these fines are often so paltry that labs consider them merely “a cost of doing business,” according to multiple reports from the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General. In fact, within the realm of the lucrative primate trade, most fines do not even come close to the cost of acquiring a single monkey for biomedical research (estimated at $55,000).

The OIG concluded, in a 2005 audit, that larger stipulated penalties (i.e., discounted penalties used in settlement agreements with violators) were needed, warning that fines being assessed were “negligible” for labs “with assets in the billions of dollars.” In the end, multiple institutions operating NPRCs have continued to be cited for critical noncompliances with the AWA — sometimes for the exact same issues — even after being fined.

The University of Washington (UW), for example, has received 12 critical citations from the USDA since 2014, several of which involved monkey deaths at its NPRC. Yet, the university — whose annual budget is $9.4 billion — was fined only $3,750 in 2022. It received another critical citation in September — its second in 10 months — after a primate died from being improperly anesthetized and another experienced a preventable brain injury. UW has a history of anesthesia-related primate deaths. Moreover, the university was investigated by the NIH recently after numerous issues were uncovered at its breeding facility in Arizona, and diseased monkeys from this facility were allegedly sent across the country, potentially compromising tens of millions of dollars in research.

The two highest stipulated penalties issued in the past four years to any USDA-regulated entity were to the University of Wisconsin-Madison ($74,000) and Oregon Health & Science University ($37,900) for noncompliances with the AWA that included primate deaths due to what appears to be, at best, carelessness, inattention, and disregard for prior warnings. All told, institutions that operate NPRCs have paid three-quarters of the total fines levied by the USDA against research facilities over the past four years, which, according to AWI, speaks to the severity of their offenses.

  • In April 2020, the University of Wisconsin-Madison (current budget of $4.2 billion) paid a $74,000 fine in addition to a $35,286 fine paid in 2014. The university has received eight critical citations since 2014 for multiple primate deaths, injuries, amputations, and escapes. USDA records show that one monkey was found dead from severe trauma due to a cagemate attack four days after a previous attack by that same cagemate. Additionally, four primates suffered from severe dehydration, including one who had to be euthanized, after their water was disconnected for at least four days. Since paying its 2020 fine, the university has received four more critical citations.
  • Oregon Health & Science University ($4.9 billion budget) has received 10 primate-related critical citations since 2014. The university was fined $37,900 in October 2022 after a young primate, who had been stuck in a PVC pipe enrichment device and developed neurological symptoms, had to be euthanized. Two rhesus macaques died (one by euthanasia) after being placed in a scalding hot cage washer. A juvenile macaque was injured while trapped under a stainless steel trough drain cover that was improperly secured. (Inspectors determined that the “root cause” of the latter two incidents was “insufficient training and/or supervision.”) The university’s most recent critical citation was in July 2023 — nine months after its last fine — for the euthanasia of an infant macaque after his spine and shoulder were injured by a sliding door that fell on him while staff were trying to capture and direct the mother and the two-day-old infant into a transport box.

“As we saw with the USDA’s botched handling of the Envigo case, where 4,000 beagles bred for research had to be rescued from deplorable conditions, the department coddles the medical research industry instead of protecting animals — their unwilling subjects — from harm,” Kleiman said.

 

*Fine records prior to 2019 are not included in the USDA’s public database; AWI supplemented its analysis with internet research.

Media Contact Information

Marjorie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute
[email protected], (202) 446-2128

The Animal Welfare Institute (awionline.org) is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.