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Originally published January 8, 2010 at 7:29 PM | Page modified January 8, 2010 at 8:11 PM

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UW monkey starved to death in lab last year

Staff at the University of Washington's National Primate Research Center allowed a monkey to starve to death last year. The death is the latest blow for animal-research programs at the UW, which is one of the nation's top institutions in terms of biomedical funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Seattle Times science reporter

Staff at the University of Washington's National Primate Research Center allowed a monkey to starve to death last year.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection report says the male pigtailed macaque had lost a quarter of his body weight, and had not been weighed regularly as required by the university's own protocols.

Three workers and one supervisor were disciplined, said center Director David Anderson.

Nona Phillips, director of UW's Office of Animal Welfare, said the incident was "extremely upsetting."

"That's a bad thing to have happen," she said. "This is very, very unusual."

The death is the latest blow for animal research programs at the UW, which is one of the nation's top institutions in terms of biomedical funding from the National Institutes of Health.

In 1995, five baboons died of exposure or thirst at a UW primate-breeding center near Spokane. The center was later closed. Inspectors from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care found "serious deficiencies" in the university's animal-care facilities in 2006 and placed the university on probation. In 2008, UW was ordered to reimburse the federal government more than $20,000 for unauthorized surgeries performed on primates being used to study the relationship between the brain and eye movement.

The animal-rights organization Stop Animal Exploitation Now, which monitors all U.S. research centers, has targeted the UW for special scrutiny, said Executive Director Michael Budkie. "If they can't even keep the primates fed, you have to wonder what else is happening," Budkie said.

But Anderson pointed out the university spent $38 million over the past few years to upgrade animal-care facilities.

UW is now fully accredited, Phillips said. And the previous two USDA inspections of the primate center uncovered no problems.

Anderson said the center retrained its staff and changed procedures after the macaque died in April.

The 3 1/2-year-old monkey had recently been introduced into a new group of about 15 other macaques, Anderson said. The highly social creatures sometimes turn on newcomers, and staffers had been observing the animal several times a day to make sure that didn't happen. But even though dominant animals weren't beating up on the new arrival, they were apparently preventing him from sharing in food, Anderson said.

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Animals mask infirmity to prevent being preyed on in the wild, so the macaque's weakened state was not obvious to observers, he added. UW's rules require all animals to be weighed every four weeks, which would have spotted the weight loss. The USDA report said the macaque hadn't been weighed for more than two months before his death. Anderson said it actually had been six weeks since the animal was weighed, but the lapse was nonetheless inexcusable.

The problem was traced to a change in staffing and confusion over responsibilities. Among the fixes instituted is a computer program that alerts supervisors as well as staff when an animal is overdue for attention, Anderson said.

The macaque was not being used for experimentation.

But the same USDA inspection noted a problem with two adult male baboons, being used for neurological studies. Cages were designed so that when the animals were on the perches where they usually sleep, they were unable to "sit upright in a normal manner" because of 2-inch-tall implants in their heads.

Anderson said the problem was corrected by lowering the perches.

The UW primate center's Web site says it is the largest of eight federal centers across the country. Facilities in Seattle house about 700 animals, mostly macaques and baboons. The university also operates primate-breeding colonies in Louisiana and Texas, with about 3,000 animals.

The primates are used in a wide range of research.

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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