Animal Welfare Act Violations at Ivy League Universities
A report from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
The eight Ivy League universities are among the oldest and most highly respected American universities, and they are regularly ranked among the top schools in the nation.5 The Ivy League research programs also receive a disproportionate amount of NIH research funding. The RePORT database identifies about $20 billion in NIH research grant funding per year for FY2008-2010, of which the eight Ivy League schools consistently received more than 8 percent—more than $1.7 billion each year. Four Ivy League schools have received more than $1 billion each since FY2008.
The Animal Welfare Act is the only federal law that regulates the care and treatment of animals in research in the United States. Enacted in 1966, the law has been amended seven times, most recently in 2008.6 The Animal Welfare Act provides for minimum standards of care for animals used in research, but does not address the nature, quality, or usefulness of that research. It is also restricted to warm-blooded animals, and there are additional exemptions (mice, rats, birds), such that more than 90 percent of animals used for research are excluded even from the minimal protections of the Animal Welfare Act.
Animal Welfare Act enforcement is the responsibility of the Animal Care division of APHIS, and this enforcement is carried out through periodic inspections of protocols and facilities, supplemented by corrective actions. It is difficult for these inspections to be comprehensive, as APHIS investigators spend only one or two days assessing facilities with large numbers of animal-use protocols and holding thousands of animals.
Even severe and repeat Animal Welfare Act violations rarely draw sanctions or fines, and those fines are minimal. In a 2005 audit of APHIS Animal Care inspections and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, the USDA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found, among other problems, that APHIS is incapable of adequate Animal Welfare Act enforcement. Even when fines were levied, they were so insubstantial that the OIG concluded that violators “now consider the monetary stipulation as a normal cost of conducting business rather than as a deterrent for violating the Animal Welfare Act.”7 This contributed to the OIG's observation that “[some] facilities were resistant to change, showing a general disregard for APHIS regulations.”
Even the Ivy League universities that fared better when evaluated by the Research Misconduct Score had numerous and severe Animal Welfare Act violations, failing to meet even the most basic requirements. The lax animal care at Ivy League schools is due to a combination of disregard for animals, rubber stamp approvals by institutional animal care and use committees, poor or absent oversight by those committees, and lack of accountability related to ineffectual Animal Welfare Act provisions and enforcement.
Outside organizations and individuals face many barriers when attempting to hold academic animal research programs accountable. Schools are often reluctant to make public any information about animal experiments or care, and that information typically can be gleaned only through APHIS inspection reports, research facility annual reports, notoriously slow federal Freedom of Information Act requests, and whistleblowers. Due to this difficulty, animal welfare deficiencies can go undetected or uncorrected for far too long.