Let’s cut to the chase and open the envelope on this particular award, because the longer we wait, the longer the animals suffer.
Research watchdog group Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! (SAEN) has named a laboratory facility called Rockland Immunochemicals, Inc. of Gilbertsville, Pa., as the “nation’s worst lab for 2013” for violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). It’s not hard to understand why.
Rockland is an antibody production facility, which means it injects antigens into hundreds of animals like mice, rabbits, goats and sheep. These animals’ blood is then used to develop serum antibody products which are used to fight diseases.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees research laboratory compliance with the AWA. Carrying out this duty over the course of a mere six weeks in early 2013, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Animal Care Program inspected Rockland at least three times. They ended up substantiating an incredible 26 violations of the AWA.
A Whistleblower Asks USDA to Investigate Heartbreaking Allegations
The stepped-up inspections apparently came as a result of a whistleblower complaint in February 2013. Someone claiming to be a former worker at Rockland sent a detailed message by e-mail to the USDA. If the allegations are accurate, Rockland Immunochemicals, Inc. is a sad and horrifying place for animals. The complaint charged the following:
- Upon the arrival of inspectors, some workers pull them aside to talk with them, distracting them long enough for others to cover up any violations.
- The workers who “handle the goats and sheep” do it by “beating, punching, kicking, stomping and twisting their heads.”
- Rabbits are “tossed into cages, booted around the floor, and faces smashed into cages because they do not cooperate with employees.”
- The manager “does nothing when he sees the abuse.”
- A large goat fell into an old open septic well and died there. “The poor goat must have suffered for a month, it was so bad that maggots came up the drains and into the sink and…along the walls.” Eventually, “[m]ost of the remains were quietly removed…”
- “Some rabbits are used for heart punctures and are not knocked out, some do not make it.”
- A rabbit’s back was broken.
- The lab performs heart punctures on guinea pigs and hamsters “using dry ice to knock them out.”
- Guinea pigs “are not always knocked out because they bleed better when they struggle.”
- Mice are not knocked out at all. Instead “they just cut their throats over a cup.”
- “Once in a while cats and dogs are a special order [for research purposes]. These are kept quiet.”
What the USDA Discovered and Validated
USDA’s inspections validated many of these allegations, but not all of them. Predictably, no one actually punched or stomped on any goats or smashed rabbit faces into cages while an inspector was watching. Nevertheless, USDA did substantiate that many of the allegations were true. There is no question this is a facility with significant, recurring AWA compliance problems.
March 13, 2013 – In this inspection, APHIS reported 10 violations, which included inadequate veterinary care, inadequate supervision to ensure protocols and standard operating procedures were being followed, unqualified personnel who had no training in the needs of the animals and who sometimes used excessive force when handling and restraining the animals, improper enclosures, improper sanitation (for example, a rabbit was found with a large amount of feces in its enclosure and fecal staining and debris on its fur).
March 26, 2013 – APHIS inspectors returned two weeks later and had to cite Rockland again for many of the same problems as well as some unfortunate new ones. The 10 violations cited this time included the carcass of a rat found unwrapped in a refrigerator right next to bottles of medication; inadequate veterinary care of at least 12 rabbits and two goats, resulting in the need to euthanize two rabbits; lameness, overgrown hooves and teeth; bedding contaminated by urine and feces; guinea pigs crammed into enclosures too small for them; bird droppings in bedding materials; insufficient number of employees to adequately care for the animals.
April 22, 2013 – APHIS, back yet again four weeks later, amazingly had to cite Rockland for six repeat violations. This time around, inspectors observed that workers were injecting and bleeding guinea pigs without any standard protocol or procedures to follow; continued evidence of inadequate veterinary care as demonstrated by rabbits with yellowish nasal discharges and an untreated sore on the back; inadequate enclosures; and too infrequent sanitization of feeders.
What About the Animals Not Protected by the AWA?
One or two of the allegations, appalling as they may sound, were not violations of the AWA because not all lab animals are covered by that law. Mice, rats, amphibians and birds are specifically excluded from protection under the AWA.
The USDA therefore could not and did not further investigate, for example, whether lab workers were really cutting mice’s throats over paper cups without anesthetic. As duly noted in its March 15th response to the complaint, “mice are not a covered species under the AWA.”
According to the American Anti-Vivisection Society, mice and rats make up about 95 percent of the animals used in experimentation. That’s approximately 100 million little creatures with no law to protect them from pain and mistreatment.
What if the Whistleblower Hadn‘t Written?
Rockland got all this attention because someone cared and started waving a red flag. Had that not happened, it’s not clear if any of this information would ever have been discovered. What USDA plans to do about these 26 animal welfare violations remains to be seen.
SAEN’s executive director, Michael A. Budkie, calls what Rockland is doing to its animals “inexcusable.”
“Rockland has now become infamous for violating federal law 26 times in 6 weeks and they should pay the price,” he said in SAEN’s press release on this matter. “Killing animals by negligently bleeding them to death or allowing them to die without adequate care — these are the kind of things that the Animal Welfare Act was designed to prevent.”
Budkie wants to see Rockland get “the largest fine allowable by law.” If you agree, and would like to tell USDA so, sign this petition. Care2 will deliver it to directly to Dr. Elizabeth Goldentyer, Director of the USDA’s Eastern Regional Office, so she will know that people are paying attention to what USDA does about the violations at Rockland.
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