It might seem difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that anyone could keep 841 goats without authorities noticing. But Santa Cruz Biotechnology, a major supplier of antibodies and other materials used by molecular biology labs worldwide, was able to do just that for at least two and a half years.
“That’s virtually unheard of in my career,” Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute, who has been working for them since 1982, tells Nature. A December 2012 report by USDA inspectors says that the company had routinely denied the existence of the facility, which was located about 14 kilometers south of the company’s main operations in Santa Cruz.
Nature describes Santa Cruz Biotechnology “as the second-largest supplier in the U.S. $1.6-billion global market for research antibodies. While research labs never actually see the goats, the animals’ antibodies play a ‘key role in modern bioscience,’” as John Timmer explains on Ars Technica:
Antibodies are useful for several procedures conducted by biologists because they can stick so specifically to a single target. If you can raise antibodies against a specific protein, you can then use those antibodies to purify that protein out of the huge mix of proteins produced by a cell.
Goats are seen as good sources since they can generate more antibodies and have a longer lifespan than mice (which most research institutions are more familiar with). Larger blood samples can also be taken from goats. As neuroscientist Erik Ullian at the University of California, San Francisco, says, Santa Cruz Biotechnology develops more hard-to-find antibodies than other companies and sometimes is the “only option that we have for trying an antibody.”
Under the Animal Welfare Act, animals with conditions that cause them pain are to be euthanized. The USDA had cited Santa Cruz Biotechnology for violating animal welfare laws a number of times in the past as far back as 2005, when it had to pay $4,600 in fines resulting from violations in “animal sanitation, veterinary care, and training.” Investigators found flies around the animals’ enclosures and the use of “unacceptable forms of euthanasia, as well as using more than 1,000 rabbits when a protocol authorized the use of 80.”
A USDA inspection on on May 5, 2010, found instances of “lame animals, incomplete health records” and a goat who had a “large, approximately baseball sized tumor” protruding from its neck, writes USDA investigator and veterinarian Marcy Rosendale. The tumor was draining into a shared feeder, “exposing the hay and other animals to the effusion.” A July 13, 2010 investigation said that one goat had a “large open wound to the right hind leg”; the goat had been bitten by a coyote and, Rosendale writes, had “never received any treatment for pain, even prior to wound treatment.”
In 2011, Santa Cruz Biotechnology was under investigation by the USDA for animal welfare violations when a goat with a massive tumor was found being kept alive in order to continue to provide antibodies. In February 2011, a goat was found “wedged in a metal feeder, unable to move its head out of the rungs of the feeder.”
While the USDA typically inspects research and commercial animal facilities once or twice a year, it visited Santa Cruz Biotechnology twelve times in 2012. A “tip-off” led inspectors to find the “remote barn” with 841 goats, some of whom were “lame, anaemic or had protruding bones,” says Nature.
In an email to Nature, Santa Cruz Biotechnology claims that “all animals maintained at the ranch are reported annually to the USDA, including the subject 841 goats” and contends that it is in the process of resolving the dispute. The USDA, though, emphasizes that its “inspectors are very thorough” and that it is a “serious matter” that so many animals were unreported. As neuroscientist Ullan says, “If they don’t know, or neglect to tell the inspector, about 800 animals, it begs questions about how well this company is run and how careful they are in their product line” — with who knows what effects on the research of many labs.
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