The National Institutes of Health found UNC responsible for 65 instances of lab-animal welfare violations over the last four and a half years, according to documents obtained by The Daily Tar Heel.
From mice to pigs to zebrafish, the reports show the wide variety of animal research UNC conducts and the potential for mistakes at the expense of its subjects, whether it be during major, federally-funded experiments or in a biology classroom.
Mice, songbirds, pigs and more
The incidents are described in 40 separate UNC self-reports that the NIH confirmed contained violations between February 2015 and September this year. The NIH had already found violations this year in eight such reports by UNC as of last month, three more than the total for all of 2018.
An NIH public records officer said in late September that two more UNC reports from this year were not released to the DTH because they involved pending investigations.
Each report describes situations where UNC researchers violated one to four federal guidelines or established institutional protocols on the proper treatment and use of laboratory animals.
The most frequent incidents described in the reports involved research animals not receiving supportive care at UNC. Missteps reported included those that led to starvation, dehydration, overcrowding of cages and more. Supportive care for laboratory animals relates to pain management during and after surgical procedures, housing, environmental modifications and control allowed to animals in certain situations, according to the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science.
The majority of reports listed mice as the animals affected by stated violations, though nearly half of the reports did not provide a specific number of animals impacted.
An August 2016 report stated that 11 mice had died of starvation after confusion among UNC researchers as to who was responsible for feeding the animals.
Another report last year stated that 92 zebrafish died under UNC’s care due to a water filtering issue that occurred while they were being transported to another facility. In addition, approximately 100 zebrafish were subsequently found dead in the facility that the fish were being transported to.
Rats, songbirds, pigs and other types of fish were also reported as being subject to welfare violations at UNC in recent years. A report from February this year stated that the University had euthanized a pig after an “apparent human error” caused a malfunction in an anesthesia machine the pig was hooked up to, leading to breathing issues and distress.
A UNC spokesperson said in a statement that the University’s mission at times relies on animals in the search for cures and treatments, and “to better understand the nature of life.” The spokesperson stated that UNC employees and administration are committed to humane animal treatment.
“The reported incidents are rare and in each case the proper oversight agencies were notified and corrective actions taken,” the spokesperson said in the statement.
Patricia Brown, director of the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, said her agency doesn’t use the self-reports as a punitive process, instead hoping to collaborate with research bodies like UNC to make their programs better.
“We don’t have an intent to say one institution is worse or better than another based on the number of things they report to us,” Brown said.
‘You never want to see that’
During spring semester 2019, sophomore Anne Frances Jarrell clocked in at her work-study job as a husbandry assistant at UNC Zebrafish Aquaculture Core Facility. She expected a typical shift – feed the fish, check the water quality, and possibly perform a euthanasia procedure if a fish was sick, injured or had reached the end of its usefulness for a researcher.
Instead, she watched a researcher improperly euthanize a fish by dumping ice into its tank and slowly freezing it to death.
“It’s rare to train every single person perfectly so they don’t make any mistakes, but obviously that’s not what you want,” Jarrell said. “You never want to see that, so that definitely made me uncomfortable.”
Jarrell said she didn’t confront the researcher or report the incident to her supervisor. The improper euthanization described by Jarrell was not mentioned in any self-reports obtained by the DTH.
“(If I told my supervisor), I think she wouldn't be alarmed, because she’s been doing this for a while and she’s seen it all,” Jarrell said. “But I imagine she’d be on the lookout for anybody who seems like they don’t know what they're doing and maybe send an email out.”
Michelle Altemara, facility manager at the zebrafish facility, said she had never heard of the improper euthanization incident Jarrell witnessed.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Altemara said. “I have never heard of that, so no one notified me and we have procedures in place for that. They are supposed to notify me at the least, if not (UNC’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee).”
On Sept. 28, 2019, Altemara sent a lab-wide email out after finding a dead fish in the hallway, a separate incident from the one Jarrell described, according to a copy of the email reviewed by the DTH.
“Found a dead fish in the hallway OUTSIDE of the facility this morning,” Altemara wrote in the email. “Please transport fish safely and securely by netting fish to be transported into a ziplock bag and placing inside a Styrofoam cooler. Be sure there is sufficient air at the top of the bag before sealing.”
Despite Altemara’s email, the September incident was also not included in UNC’s self-reports from 2019.
Senior Stephanie Jeselson, who previously worked in a zebrafish lab for work-study and as a temp, said in a message to the DTH that at first, some lab techniques made her uncomfortable, but she believed they were acceptable for research purposes. However, she added that some incidents she witnessed may have violated animal welfare guidelines.
“Some researchers were kinda careless with their fish and would overcrowd tanks or slosh water when walking with tanks, which dropped fish on the ground, and then would just leave them there to die without really caring,” Jeselson said. “It was definitely not the norm and they were reprimanded for it, but it wasn’t fun to see.”
Beyond the research lab
While many reports omit identifying information like names and locations of labs in self-reports for privacy and safety reasons, one report from February 2019 described an animal welfare violation in a biology lab at UNC.
On Feb. 7, 2019, the NIH’s Office of Animal Care and Use received an email from a UNC student, who described a biology lab where class members would experiment on live zebrafish and neon tetra fish without institutional approval or adequate training.
The NIH later found that the class had been experimenting on live animals for “several years,” according to a letter the agency sent Terry Magnuson, UNC’s vice chancellor for research.
Following the report, the class stopped working with live animals until a protocol was implemented that included institutional approval and adequate training, according to the letter.
Documents obtained by the DTH do not name the specific class responsible for the violations. UNC didn’t respond to requests to reveal the name or further details on the specific course cited in the violation report.
UNC has received $499 million total from NIH to fund all research, animal-related or not, so far this year, an 11.8 percent increase from last year and a 31.6 percent increase from 2015.
NIH spokesperson Emma Wojtowicz said the agency doesn’t distinguish between how many of these funds are related to animal research or not. In a 2012 NIH-funded workshop, a former NIH Freedom of Information Act officer Margaret Snyder estimated that nearly half of all NIH-funded grants had an “animal research-based component.”
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