WSU makes apparently meaningless show of response to complaints
PULLMAN, Washington––Washington State University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee chief Phyllis Erdman on July 22, 2016 made a show of responding promptly to alleged federal Animal Welfare Act violations resulting in the accidental deaths of grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, calves and rabbits in university laboratories.
A closer look at what really happened, though, suggests that nothing much has changed at WSU, and nothing much will unless someone, somehow, brings more pressure to bear on WSU to be responsive, accountable, and above all else, more careful in how animals are used and looked after.
Five to seven years?
“Washington State University announced it would begin external reviews of all WSU labs following three complaints by animal rights group Stop Animal Exploitation Now and an internal investigation by the university into its own Bear Research Education & Conservation Center,” wrote Moscow, Idaho/Pullman, Washington Daily News reporter Josh Babcock, after Erdman’s teleconference addressing the SAEN charges.
“Erdman said during the next five to seven years all of the university’s labs would be inspected to ensure WSU is providing the resources the labs need to operate legally and remain compliant with federal regulations,” Babcock elaborated––and affirmed to ANIMALS 24-7 that according to his taped record of the teleconference, his paraphrasing was accurate.
“Enhanced technical review only”
ANIMALS 24-7 thought Erdman’s statement, as reported, was odd, in view that the federal Animal Welfare Act requires twice annual inspections of laboratories. Many other agencies and accreditation bodies with jurisdiction at WSU require inspection visits much more often than once in five to seven years.
Elaborated Washington State University spokesperson Marta Coursey, after ANIMALS 24-7 e-mailed to Erdman seeking clarification of whatever she meant, “The [WSU] Institutional Animal Care & Use Committee does review, and will continue to review, all WSU facilities and animal use areas/labs every six months as required by law. The five-to-seven-year interval referred to by local media is for an enhanced technical review only.”
In other words, WSU in response to the SAEN complaints promised only to do “enhanced technical review” of animal use facilities approximately as often as a convicted killer gets a parole hearing.
Dog died coughing up blood
Asking the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service to fine Washington State University $10,000 for each alleged Animal Welfare Act violation, SAEN alleged that WSU “negligently failed to provide veterinary care to a dog who died,” coughing up blood, “and failed to provide adequate pain relief during biopsies on grizzlies at the Bear Research, Education & Conservation Center,” summarized Babcock. “Other issues raised in the complaint involved the deaths of six bighorn sheep, rabbits who suffered broken legs, and calves who were denied adequate water during research.”
SAEN cited an April 26, 2016 USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service report describing the deaths of two bears in cases that also involved alleged failure to maintain veterinary records and failure to report to a veterinarian the treatments prescribed by a USDA-APHIS inspector.
Grisly grizzly bear deaths
Among the WSU documents obtained by SAEN through Freedom of Information Act requests were notes recounting how a bear named Mica died from complications of a ruptured uterus:
“Perforated uterus followed by abdominal sepsis. . . . The peritoneal space contains approximately 5.0 liters of fetid, opaque, red-tan fluid . . .”
A second bear was found “Deceased . . . [with] possible gastric ulceration.”
Another dying bear “was so intent on the [fruit] cocktail” he was given to try to get him to eat “that even as his strength failed, he was still trying to eat lying down. . . . At the end, he was apparently so tired that he would take the cocktail into his mouth, chew a few times, and then quit — no swallowing. Then he’d try again. Because he was so intent on the cocktail, but too uncoordinated to eat from the trough, too tired to swallow, we removed it from the cage for fear he might drown.”
This bear was “euthanized vomiting, not defecating.”
SAEN also questioned the reasons why other bears were euthanized during the Washington State University studies.
The bear deaths were earlier investigated, beginning in fall 2015, by a Washington State University panel headed by Kim Kidwell, executive associate dean for the WSU College of Agriculture, Human, & Natural Resources.
“The most eye-opening information from the [Kidwell] report,” assessed Babcock, concerned “the euthanization of two grizzly yearlings in 2010 after they had been placed in hibernation together without an adult. They had been placed in what is known as a ‘culvert trap.’ But the bears did not go into hibernation. By the time they were removed ‘their health had deteriorated so severely,’” apparently from dehydration and starvation, “‘that both bears had to be euthanized,’ the report states.”
According to the report, “The experience revealed that bears need to learn how to hibernate.”
Private citizen would have been prosecuted
Explained Babcock, paraphrasing the Kidwell report, “The two cubs were left in cages that lacked surveillance, which is typical for the center’s hibernation areas. The report said such areas are expected to have video monitoring and that the traps must have surveillance installed before the traps are used for the next hibernation cycle.”
The Bear Research, Education & Conservation Center subsequently “revised their best management practice for culvert trap hibernation by only using bears who have previously hibernated in culvert traps,” Babcock added.
Had a private individual locked up two bear cubs to dehydrate and starve to death, the individual would almost certainly have been criminally prosecuted.
Grizzlies used in diabetes study
In addition to the cub deaths, two adult grizzlies were killed at the Bear Research, Education & Conservation Center in January 2016 to collect tissue samples.
The purpose of the grizzly bear research, a March 2015 report by Michael Werner of KCTS-9 indicated, is to better understand the biochemistry of hibernation.
Grizzly bears “don’t eat, drink, urinate or defecate during the hibernating season,” explained WSU Bear Center manager Joy Erlenbach to Werner. “The bear’s metabolism decreases drastically. Their heart rate drops from somewhere around 60 beats per minute to much lower, maybe around 10 beats per minute,” and the bears’ bodies become resistant to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar content.
Said WSU researcher Heiko Jansen, “What we see in bears looks very similar to what happens in diabetic humans. The big difference, though, is that the bears transition into and out of that state every year. So they exhibit a reversible diabetic state.”
Study data faked
Funded by the pharmaceutical firm Amgen, Jansen “is trying to solve the mystery of how the bears make this switch,” summarized Werner. “The answer could one day lead to a treatment for human diabetes.”
In August 2014 the WSU grizzly research informed the cover article in the scientific journal Cell Metabolism. But a few months later Cell Metabolism retracted the article, explaining “Amgen requested the retraction as an outcome of an internal review where it was determined that one of the Amgen authors had manipulated specific experimental data. Because of data manipulation, this author is no longer employed by Amgen.
Continued the retraction, “The authors at Washington State University and University of Idaho are confident that the physiological data generated for this manuscript are accurate and representative of the true metabolic responses of these grizzly bears and are currently repeating the mechanistic portions of the study. Amgen deeply regrets this circumstance and extends their sincere apologies to the scientific community.”
Meanwhile back at the Washington State University research ranch, six of 12 bighorn sheep used in a pneumonia vaccine trial protocol begun in early 2011 died during the study. Several sheep were “mistakenly given 50 times the prescribed dose of a glucocorticoid drug for three consecutive days,” summarized Babcock.
The pneumonia vaccine strain, causing frequent deaths of wild bighorn lambs, has hit bighorns hard in many regions, most recently in the vicinity of Hemenway Park, near Boulder City, Nevada. The disease there was apparently brought by wild rams who migrated north from the Mojave National Preserve in California, but is most often transmitted directly by contact between bighorns and infected domestic sheep.
Nevada Department of Wildlife game division biologist Pat Cummings reported that an October 2015 Hemenway Park herd count found a decline from 239 bighorn sheep a year earlier to just 139 remaining, with only five surviving lambs, down from 37 lambs in October 2014.
About 70,000 bighorn sheep persist in the Rocky Mountains, down from as many as two million circa 200 years ago, before settlers brought domestic sheep into the region.
Vaccine approach is likely ineffective
Cummings and Thomas Besser, who holds the Rocky Crate D.V.M. & Wild Sheep Foundation Endowed Chair in Wild Sheep Disease Research at WSU, have expressed skepticism that vaccine research is the right approach to the problem.
This is partly because of the difficulty of delivering a vaccine to wild sheep, even if an effective vaccine could be developed. Besser’s predecessor, Subramaniam Srikumaran, who held the WSU chair in wild sheep disease research from 2004 through 2015, focused his work on developing an orally administered pneumonia vaccine.
Funded by trophy hunters
The wild sheep disease research chair is named for Rocky Crate, a 1969 WSU veterinary alumnus, trophy hunter, and longtime member of the Wild Sheep Foundation, whose focus is maintaining and expanding huntable populations of bighorn sheep.
Crate, who died from cancer in 1998, endowed WSU and the Wild Sheep Foundation with more than $1.5 million from his estate. The Wild Sheep Foundation had already been funding WSU wild sheep disease research since circa 1993.
“For decades, people smarter than I pursued a vaccine for controlling organisms that seemingly cause a fatal pneumonia in wild sheep, with little success,” Besser told WSU publicist Charlie Powell in April 2016.
“It now appears that for a long list of reasons, a vaccine strategy for wild sheep is not the best way to control the agent that starts the disease process, a bacterium named Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae. We call this bacterium ‘Movi’ for short,” Besser said.
“In just the last five years, we’ve come to understand this complex disease process much better,” Besser explained, “and I think we are now at the point where we can begin to try out some [other] possible solutions. That progress is specifically why I took this position [at WSU] now instead of retiring this year.”
Summarized Powell, “The bacterium is found in domestic sheep and goats, where it causes relatively mild disease,” except in newly weaned lambs, but when Movi is transmitted to bighorn sheep, about 80% of the infected wild sheep die.
“Experiments have shown that contacts between domestic sheep carrying Movi and bighorn sheep nearly always result in fatal bighorn sheep pneumonia,” wrote Powell. “However, similar contacts with domestic sheep who don’t carry Movi do not trigger epidemic pneumonia.”
Accordingly, said Besser, “we are working with the University of Idaho Sheep Center to see if we can eliminate Movi from part of their domestic sheep flock. As long as domestic sheep carry Movi, they represent a significant risk to bighorn sheep, so it would be a great help if domestic sheep flocks near bighorn ranges would work to eliminate Movi from their animals.
“I am also working with wildlife agency biologists and veterinarians to try to eliminate the carriers of Movi from affected wild sheep populations,” Besser added, “to stop the on-going pneumonia losses they often experience.”
Commented Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases wildlife disease moderator Pablo Beldominico, “Bighorn sheep pneumonia has traditionally been considered a multifactorial disease, caused by multiple pathogens,” suggesting that multiple vaccines might be required even if the vaccination approach to control showed promise.
“Due to their complexity, understanding multifactorial phenomena like this usually requires integrated and sustained research efforts,” Beldominico said. “The absence of established and universal explanations for pneumonia outbreaks contributes to conflict among wildlife and livestock stakeholders over land use and management practices.
“The bighorn sheep pneumonia web of causation may have an important environmental component,” Beldominico continued. “In recent years, die-offs of bighorn sheep in several locations suggest that the proximate cause of these events may be a shared environmental determinant,” somehow helping the Old World disease Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae to jump from domestic sheep into the wild population.