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Animal rights group files federal complaint over guinea pig death
Galveston, TX
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An animal rights group filed a federal complaint Tuesday morning asserting the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston violated the Animal Welfare Act by steaming a research guinea pig to death.


Stop Animal Exploitation Now, a nonprofit that advocates for the end of animal abuse and animal testing, filed the complaint to the U.S. Department of Agriculture against the medical branch’s Galveston National Laboratory.


“In a report that was filed with the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston admitted that they left an animal in a shipping crate that was sterilized,” said Michael Budkie, executive director of the nonprofit.


Necessary actions were taken to ensure the safety of all animals at medical branch laboratories, spokesman Christopher Smith Gonzalez said.


“The professionals in the University of Texas Medical Branch’s animal resource center are committed to the welfare of the animals in their care,” Smith Gonzalez said.


A shipment of 11 guinea pigs in two commercial shipping boxes arrived at the medical branch on Nov. 28, 2022, a letter from the medical branch to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare stated.


A technician opened each box and placed the animals into their cages, the letter stated.


“Once the boxes were believed to be empty, the technician swept the box with her hand to check for additional animals as she was trained to do,” the letter stated. “Once the Guinea pigs were housed, the transport boxes were placed inside an autoclave bag.”


The technician then took transport boxes and placed them into the autoclave per facility specific procedures and started the autoclave cycle to be processed out, the letter stated.


An autoclave, a sterilization device commonly used in laboratories, uses steam to kill bacteria.


“The technician exited the high containment facility but returned because, by her account, something did not feel right,” the letter said. “She proceeded to the autoclave area and hit the emergency stop-cycle button.”


It had taken about an hour to open the autoclave safely.


“Upon opening, a single guinea pig was found in one of the boxes,” the letter stated. “The operations manager noted that the animal was in rigor mortis when she was performing a secondary method to confirm death.”


At no time was it definitively verified that the 11 guinea pigs were received alive and that none had died during transportation, the letter said.


“The animal was literally cooked alive,” Budkie said. “There was a violation and a fine a number of years ago. That fine was relevant to negligent animal deaths at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. This is a facility that has a long record of violating the animal welfare act.”


In 2016, the medical branch settled with the Department of Agriculture and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare by implementing an improvement plan and paying a $33,000 fine to the agricultural department, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act.


The investigation stemmed from the findings of a February 2015 audit of a medical branch study of monkeys injected with Marburg virus and a routine inspection in February involving guinea pigs and Ebola research.


A routine inspection by the USDA’s Animal Care Division revealed that 19 guinea pigs had been found dead in their cage instead of having been properly euthanized during Ebola research, according to the inspection report.


In the recent guinea pig death, the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare Jan. 9 informed the medical branch there was nothing to further investigate.


“The consideration of this matter by the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston was consistent with the philosophy of institutional self-regulation,” according to the letter. “Similarly, the action taken to resolve the issue and prevent recurrence were appropriate and should prevent future incidents.”


Budkie, however, asserted that was not enough and sent a letter to the Animal Welfare Operations arguing the medical branch should be fined at the maximum level of $12,722 per animal.


“I know that your office considers major violations of the Animal Welfare Act to be very serious in nature, especially when these violations abuse, or seriously injure animals,” Budkie said in the letter.


Galveston National Laboratory is a world-renowned biosafety level-4 facility where researchers study the deadliest pathogens on Earth.

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