Among Ivies, Penn racks up most federal violations for animal care

UPDATE:  The USDA last month issued an official warning letter to the University of Pennsylvania for violations that occurred between May 10, 2010 and July 20, 2011, citing the university's "failure to establish programs of adequate veterinary care that includes daily observation of all animals to assess their health and wellbeing." The warning noted that two dogs had interdigital cysts (often the result of standing on wire flooring), dirty and algae-filled water containers for four horses and three gerbil deaths that occured because of "unsuitable sipper tubes." According to the warning any further violations may result in a civil penalty or criminal prosecution.

The University of Pennsylvania had the highest number of violations of federal law governing animals care - including many repeat violations and the discovery by inspectors of a dead puppy under a grate, according to a survey of Ivy League schools by a Washington-based physicians group.

In a review of inspection reports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates all research facilities that use animals, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) found that the eight Ivy League universities had what it called "disturbingly high numbers of Animal Welfare Act violations," many of which were repeat or severe.

The University of Pennsylvania, which at its medical and veterinary schools houses as many as 5,000 animals a year, racked up 115 violations since 2008, more than double the number of violations found at Princeton University, the number two ranked worst school in the group's survey. According to the report:

In one incident of extreme negligence and disregard for animals, a newborn puppy was found dead, trapped beneath a floor grate. The puppy had slipped through the grate unnoticed, and an unknown amount of time passed before his death. In another incident, three gerbils died when water was just out of their reach due to unsuitable sipper tubes; these gerbils also likely suffered a long, drawn-out death. All of these deaths could have been prevented with proper equipment and facilities or with appropriate attention from laboratory personnel.

The University of Pennsylvania’s many repeat violations point to a practice of sloppy, inattentive care. On multiple occasions, investigators found that a barn holding cows was covered with an accumulation of feces and urine, dogs suffered untreated interdigital cysts, and researchers deviated from approved protocols. The University of Pennsylvania was also repeatedly cited for additional instances of unkempt facilities and for expired medications.

In one visit to the school, APHIS inspectors found that a dog was housed alone for two days without positive human contact or contact with other dogs. Other animals did not fare much better. Piglets and ferrets were forced to live on flooring with holes large enough for their feet to slip through, and horses lived in potentially dangerous enclosures with missing boards, exposed nails, and sharp edges, among other violations.

The group notes that the University of Pennsylvania continues to receive the highest amount of federal research funding - according to PCRM, $1.4 billion from the National Institutes of Health since 2008 - of all Ivy League schools.

In an email response, Penn said its biomedical research is conducted in accordance with all federal laws for humane care and treatment of laboratory animals and meets private accreditation standards

"The University has had a good and longstanding record of compliance with the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act," the school said in a statement. "Nothing less than the highest standards for the conduct of research are acceptable at the University of Pennsylvania and we are committed to ensuring that all of our programs continue to meet this standard."

The group ranked Princeton University second in its list. Among the findings: that "nonhuman primates were routinely forced to go more than 24 hours without water."

At Yale University, federal inspectors found baboons were burned and blistered when heating pads were substituted for warm water units in an experiment.

At Harvard University, a cage was sent through a mechanical cage washer with a primate still inside. He was found dead.

At Cornell University a primate’s lungs essentially burst when an important valve was not opened during surgery. The animal died of pulmonary hyperinflation.

The physicians group said it focused on the ivies because of their "prestige" as the top ranked schools in the nation and what it called their "disproportionate" amount of federal research funding. The group said the USDA should formally sanction the schools for the frequent violations and it wrote to NIH asking the agency to pull research funding from the offending institutions.

Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN), an animal rights group that seeks to end abuse of laboratory animals, said it will hold rally at Penn on Sunday to call attention to the puppy death and other violations.