A small animal used in labs, but a huge step for Animal Welfare Act enforcement
WASHINGTON D.C.; ROCHESTER, Minnesota––Chinchillas are very small and soft, so small that you could hold one in the palm of your hand, so soft that they have been exploited for their fur for centuries, even though from 100 to 200 chinchilla pelts are needed to make a coat.
The verdict rendered against the Moulton Chinchilla Ranch on October 8, 2021 by U.S. Department of Agriculture administrative law judge Jill S. Clifton, after an almost unprecedented 18-day hearing, was by contrast huge and harsh, by Animal Welfare Act enforcement standards––which, to be sure, have seldom put offenders permanently out of business, let alone bankrupting them or sending them to jail, no matter how egregious the violations.
“Unfit” to be a permittee, says judge
Calling Moulton Chinchilla Ranch owner Daniel Moulton “unfit” to hold a USDA license, Judge Clifton permanently revoked his permit to sell animals to biomedical research laboratories and fined him $18,000.
“I do not know why you have been unable to understand the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act,” Judge Clifton lectured from the bench, offering “I believe it is more from disinterest than anything else.”
Moulton, a practicing attorney since 1982, who has repeatedly been disciplined for alleged tax evasion, has raised chinchillas since 1988.
Moulton also “is the sole corporate officer of two [other] corporations, Southern Minnesota Air Freight and Rochester Express,” according to documents filed with the Supreme Court of Minnesota in connection with the tax evasion cases.
Despite having been disciplined at least 19 times as an attorney for violating the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, Moulton in 2016 ran unsuccessfully for a judicial position.
Ironically, Moulton purchased Southern Minnesota Air Freight in 2000 from Mary Kay Olson (1948-2015), who devoted the rest of her life to humane work in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Only the second oral verdict from the USDA bench in 18 years
“This is only the second time in 18 years that an administrative law judge has rendered an oral decision under the Animal Welfare Act from the bench,” wrote Animal Welfare Institute publicist Marjorie Fishman “which underscores the severity of Moulton’s violations related to animals’ health, sanitation, and safety.
“Since 2014,” Fishman summarized, “Moulton has amassed the worst animal care record of the 10,000+ entities regulated under the Animal Welfare Act, as the USDA itself has documented. Yet the USDA, the research industry, and state and local law enforcement repeatedly refused to act, even after Moulton Chinchilla Ranch had been cited for more than 100 Animal Welfare Act violations.”
Altogether, “It took 213 Animal Welfare Act violations to bring about this license revocation,” said Lewis & Clark Law School professor Russ Mead to Science writer Meredith Wadman. If Moulton had been allowed to continue operating, Mead suggested, “The Animal Welfare Act would have no meaning.”
Record nearly 70 times worse than the average for rabbit breeders
“By comparison,” Wadman wrote, “eleven USDA-regulated facilities that supply another small mammal—rabbits—for research have together incurred a total of 35 citations since 2014, an average of 3.2 per facility.”
Moulton, speculated Wadman, “could appeal the decision to the USDA or, if that fails, in the U.S. court system. But it seems likely,” Wadman thought, “to mark the end for a large facility that has been a go-to source for U.S. researchers whose work relies on the docile South American rodents.
“Chinchillas’ relatively large ears,” Wadman explained, “which are anatomically similar to human ears, make them a prime model for studies of hearing, hearing loss, and ear infections.”
An appeal of Judge Clifton’s verdict will have to be filed by November 8, 2021.
Chinchilla studies “would not be approved” if done to humans
“The loss of Moulton Chinchilla Ranch as a supplier for labs may hasten the ongoing decline in the use of chinchillas for hearing research,” suggested Dina Fine Marion for National Geographic.
“There are 85 USDA-licensed chinchilla dealers in the U.S.,” Marion mentioned, “but no others are actively raising the animals for research,” which requires––supposedly––keeping animals in a more biologically secure environment than is required if animals are raised for fur, as pets, or for meat.
The hearing studies done using chinchillas, Marion added, “like most animal research, often would not be approved in humans. In one recent U.S. Defense Department-funded chinchilla study, for example, chinchillas were exposed to multiple blasts to study their progressive hearing loss.”
Sanford Feldman, director of comparative medicine at the University of Virginia, told Marion that even for hearing research, “researchers have increasingly turned to animals such as zebrafish and mice, which mature faster. They [the other animals] are also purposely bred with genetic mutations that cause diseases in humans.
“During the past four years,” Feldman said, “only 36 hearing studies based on chinchillas have been listed in PubMed, a medical journal search tool, compared to more than a thousand with mice.”
“Appeals can drag on for years”
“This is the worst animal care record I have ever seen in terms of its severity and its long-term nature,” said Animal Welfare Institute researcher Eric Kleiman, from the perspective of having investigated laboratory animal use for animal advocacy organizations for more than 30 years,
But Kleiman, for one, was not inclined to celebrate the penalties meted out to Moulton prematurely.
“The appeals process can drag on for years,” Kleiman warned. “We appreciate the judge’s action, but it does not excuse the persistent failure [of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service] to protect animals. These animals should have been seized years ago, as is prescribed under the Animal Welfare Act, to prevent further harm.”
Recounted Animal Welfare Act publicist Fishman, “Photographs from years of USDA inspections document animals’ eyes crusted, sealed, swollen shut, bleeding, and oozing fluid; collars embedded in animals’ necks; protruding bones; soiled food; and green drinking water.
“During one inspection,” Fishman said, “an inspector found a dead chinchilla who had been left for so long that she had to be peeled off the top of the cage.
USDA “helped Moulton to renew his license in 2019”
In November 2018, Fishman noted, “The USDA alleged that Moulton had repeatedly failed to provide veterinary care and to be available for inspectors to evaluate compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.”
USDA-APHIS inspectors “cited repeated failure to remove excessive build-ups of waste, shavings, dust, water, fur, and dead animals in the cages, as well as a failure to maintain structurally sound enclosures, provide adequate lighting, use clean water receptacles, employ a sufficient number of staff, and control flies. Yet, after years of horrific inspection reports and filing this complaint, the USDA helped Moulton with the paperwork to renew his license in 2019.”
Further, Moulton’s customers appear to have done little or nothing to oblige him to improve conditions for the chinchillas in his care.
AALAC does nothing
Among those customers, Fishman mentioned, have been “The National Institutes of Health, Harvard Medical School, and Boston University. The American Association for Laboratory Animal Science,” Fishman charged, “actively promotes Moulton on its online Buyers Guide, with an ad paid for by Moulton to be in the guide’s Vendor Showcase.”
Recalled Wadman of Science, “In April 2021, Douglas Taylor, then-president of American Association for Laboratory Animal Science wrote in an email to ScienceInsider, “The association is monitoring the [Moulton Chinchilla Ranch] situation and awaiting a final decision by USDA and local authorities. If a decision against Moulton Chinchilla Ranch is rendered, AALAS will take appropriate action.”
A week after Judge Clifton permanently revoked the Moulton Chinchilla Ranch permit to sell animals for laboratory use, however, Moulton was still prominently listed in the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science online Buyers Guide, without so much as an asterisk to indicate that the company had been penalized, albeit possibly pending an appeal.
Minnesota prosecutor does nothing
Wadman also noted that, “In Minnesota, local prosecutors decided in August not to pursue a case against Moulton for potential violations of the state’s animal welfare law, partly, it said, because of the pending federal hearing.”
The Minnesota criminal investigation, Wadman mentioned, “was prompted in December 2020 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which says it conducted an undercover investigation at Moulton Chinchilla ranch from October 2020 to January 2021 and took its findings to a local judge. PETA alleges that Moulton denied chinchillas veterinary care for open wounds, exposed bones, abscessed and ruptured mammary tissue, and protruding or pus-filled eyes, and that [Daniel Moulton] left one animal to die after Moulton’s dog attacked it.
“Minnesota,” continued Wadman, “is a rare state that allows citizens to directly ask a court for a search warrant and a law enforcement investigation in animal cruelty cases. The search warrant was served at Moulton Chinchilla Ranch in January and law enforcement agents removed several animals.
“The local prosecutor, who was Facebook friends with Moulton, transferred the case to the county attorney in nearby Rice County,” who subsequently did nothing.
Fined $3.5 million, Santa Cruz Biotech in still in business
“The last research-related animal facility to confront a USDA judicial hearing,” Wadman remembered, “was Santa Cruz Biotechnology in 2015. That company, which housed goats and rabbits used to make antibodies, agreed to a settlement that included a $3.5 million fine and the loss of its USDA licenses.”
A major producer of antibodies, Santa Cruz Biotechnology Inc. agreed to abandon working with live animals.
But Santa Cruz Biotechnology Inc. is still in business, despite having in 2012 been caught allegedly trying to hide 841 goats from the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service to conceal Animal Welfare Act violations.