PETA files complaint with USDA over alleged Yerkes violations

'The NIH was aware of these ongoing egregious problems and then they turn around give them more money'

Yerkes National Primate Research Center is facing allegations from an animal rights advocacy group over possible violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

Earlier this week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the Emory University research center's recent practices.

The complaint comes several weeks after Yerkes received a five-year, $9.5 million grant from the National Institute of Health to study oxytocin, the brain chemical that scientists say plays a role in the bond formed between a mother and baby. Yerkes plans to use the funds to study how oxytocin responds to certain sets of stimuli through experiments performed on animals such as rodents and rhesus monkeys.

Yerkes' track record of past violations - including alleged incidences where rhesus monkeys have been harmed due to negligence - doesn't bode well for the potential animal research subjects, according to PETA's complaint.

"The NIH was aware of these ongoing egregious problems and then they turn around give them more money," PETA laboratory oversight specialist Alka Chandra tells CL. "The lack of accountability is really what pushed us to try and get another governmental agency involved."

PETA's complaint is based on information it obtained from a recent Freedom of Information Act request that looked into emails between the NIH's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare and Yerkes between December 2011 and February 2013. After reviewing these documents, the animal rights advocacy group says it discovered possible violations, including some that might compromise research animals' well-being, that USDA inspectors failed to identify.

In one case, the group claims that an infant rhesus monkey died inside its cage after becoming entangled in a frayed fire hose. Chandra says that PETA is extremely disappointed in the NIH's "over the top failure" to enforce research facilities adhering to the minimal guidelines.

Lisa Newbern, Yerkes public affairs spokeswoman, says Emory remains "committed to providing the best care for animals used in research" and that it followed the "proper process" for reporting these issues. In particular, she notes that the research center informed Emory's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, who in turn reported it to the USDA.

"We worked with IACUC to ensure the matters were thoroughly reviewed and investigated as needed," says Newbern, adding that OLAW didn't see a need to take further action.

Chandra thinks the NIH is "falling down on the job" given that Yerkes received more than $280 million in grant money in 2012.

"The governmental agencies are not perfect, none of them," says Chandra. "But the USDA is powered to cite facilities, and that has legal consequences. And that's what we're hoping for, citations and fines."

USDA says they have received the complaint and are currently looking into it.

"We take all complaints seriously and encourage all of our Stakeholders to let us know if they believe someone is mistreating animals that fall within the Animal Welfare Act," Tanya Espinosa, USDA public affairs specialist, tells CL in an email.

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