The University of Connecticut has what you might call a really ugly history when it comes to animal cruelty in research studies.
In 2002, the university paid $129,500 to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for repeated animal welfare violations on its main Storrs campus — the largest USDA fine ever for a university.
We're talking nasty stuff here: 99 separate instances of cruelty that included doing surgery on rabbits without anesthesia; unnecessary procedures; lack of veterinary care for sick or injured animals; and filthy and dangerous pens and cages for cattle and pigs. UConn officials insist they've cleaned up their act since then.
In 2007, the UConn Health Center paid $5,500 in fines after a graduate student and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals complained to the feds about neuroscience experiments that included drilling into the heads of lab monkeys.
And now the health center has had to pay another $12,429 for being cruel to lab bunnies.
"This certainly isn't an isolated incident," Justin Goodman, associate director of PETA's laboratory investigations unit, says of the latest fines. "Clearly they haven't learned their lesson."
"This is representative of a culture of cruelty and non-compliance that has existed at UConn for more than a decade," says Goodman.
The new charges cover 10 separate instances in 2008, 2009 and 2010. In one citation, the UConn lab was accused of using improper procedures that involved jabbing bunnies in the chest with needles 12 to 14 times per session.
According to the federal settlement agreement agreed to by UConn officials, the health center lab failed to use "appropriate methods to prevent, control, diagnose and treat diseases and injuries" to the rabbits.
Another case cited by USDA inspectors concerned rabbits that died unexpectedly after misuse of anesthesia and a lack of "adequate pre-procedural and post-procedural care" of the animals.
Here is an email response to a request for comment on the repeated USDA fines from Jeff Small, an associate vice president at the UConn Health Center:
"Researchers at the University of Connecticut Health Center are at the forefront of basic and translational science research leading to the development of therapies, treatments, and cures that will improve, prolong, and save human life. We strongly value the potential benefit our researchers' work will have on people throughout our state, nation and the world. Part of this research effort involves the humane and ethical treatment of animals. The UConn Health Center cooperated fully with the investigation, as we are committed to full compliance with all relevant animal welfare laws and guidelines followed by major research universities throughout the country. We constantly monitor and evaluate our use of animals in research to remain in compliance and improve the quality of our animal care activities."
PETA officials say it was their complaints about the use of "archaic and deadly medical training exercises" involving rabbits that triggered the most recent federal investigation of the UConn Health Center facilities.
Goodman was also involved in the 2007 UConn Health Center animal welfare controversy. He was a graduate student at UConn at the time and made the original complaint that lab monkeys were being abused.
David Sacks, a USDA spokesman, says the UConn Health Center paid the $12,429 in current fines in September. The original citation letter was issued in July of this year. According to Sacks, the USDA doesn't release information on such cases until after settlement agreements with the violating institutions have been signed and all fines paid.
Goodman says federal animal welfare laws don't cover "99 percent of the animals used in lab experiments." Mice, rats, birds and cold-blooded creatures aren't protected under the federal statutes, he explains.
According to UConn Health Center's reports to the federal government, there are an average of more than 26,000 animals of various types kept for research at that facility. Last year, only 154 were cats, gerbils, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs — the types of creatures that are covered by the federal animal welfare law.
Something like 1,200 animal research labs across the U.S. are registered with the USDA, and Goodman says "very few of them are ever fined" for violations.
If federal inspectors notice animal welfare violations at a lab, their normal response is to issue a citation and order that the problem be corrected by a specific date. If the deadline isn't met, Goodman says, the USDA then gives the lab or university a warning that continued violations will result in fines. The final step is to levy fines like the ones UConn has had to pay.
He argues that the minimal fines levied by the feds for animal welfare violations mean little to universities that routinely get millions of dollars in research grants from the federal government and private industry.
The UConn Health Center has been running deficits for years and getting tens of millions of dollars in state bailouts. Now, the center is undergoing a huge expansion program that's expected to cost close to $900 million.
Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine is also planning to move into a new facility on the UConn Health Center campus, with the help of a $291 million state loan.