USDA Clears Oregon Regional Primate Research Center

01/12/01    Portland, Ore.

OHSU's Oregon Regional Primate Research Center has received a clean bill of health from investigators of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In a letter made public this week, the USDA reported that an "exhaustive on-site review" could find no evidence for allegations made in a lengthy complaint filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF).

The allegations were made after a former primate center employee, Matt Rossell, and a California-based animal rights organization In Defense of Animals (IDA) conducted a press conference and posted a Web site in August 2000, claiming animal abuse at the Hillsboro research facility.

Art Hall, D.V.M., head of OHSU's Department of Comparative Medicine and overseer of animal care at the center, noted that several USDA veterinarian inspectors, arriving at unannounced times, scrutinized every aspect of the center's animal care program and facilities for a period of two weeks in October. This data was analyzed during the past two months.

According to Hall, the USDA letter confirms the results of the center's internal audit in response to charges made by Rossell and IDA at the August press conference, and on the Internet. (Primate center officials were not allowed to see the ALDF complaint.)

"We visited every site shown in Rossell's videos, attempted to determine how the conditions shown in those images could have existed, and looked into the backgrounds and claims of the 'experts' who supported Rossell's claims," said Hall. "Our conclusion, now supported by this USDA letter, was that the charges were a combination of misinformation and misleading images."

After the August press conference, center officials learned that Rossell had falsified his employment application at the center. Working for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a national animal rights organization, he had been employed at the Boys Town National Hospital, where he made similar accusations. Investigators from the USDA and the National Institutes of Health also dismissed his charges against researchers at that institution.

"This is the second time that he has cried wolf," said center spokesperson James Parker. "Those hurt by his actions are people whose confidence in vital and humane animal research is shaken. Also hurt are the taxpayers who foot the bill for costly investigations."

While dismissing the ALDF complaint and the IDA allegations, the USDA letter directed center officials to review and report on efforts begun before Rossell's allegations to improve certain areas of the husbandry program.

The center was asked to provide a plan and timetable for "provisions to address the social needs of nonhuman primates" (USDA regulations). The USDA is proposing new standards for social housing of monkeys, but these are still only in the discussion stage. During the last four years the center has applied for and received grants totaling $1.6 million for group housing and pair-caging, and current applications for additional group housing total $200,000. Because of the necessity of hiring and training new staff, implementation of the center's plan, according to the USDA, may take place over several years.

The USDA requested plans to increase the feeding of produce and the filling of enrichment devices. While the center provides a proper and balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, officials concede that its documentation has been sporadic. Steps already have been taken to correct that problem.

The center was asked to review procedures followed when capturing its free-ranging monkeys (about 1,000 monkeys live in large, outdoor corrals) to administer TB tests. Because the natural instinct of these wild animals is to resist restraint, the center has to balance the health needs of the monkeys with the stress that capture inevitably involves. It is considering what the USDA calls a "revised methodology for corral captures" and will submit a plan for trying to diminish stress to the animals.

Finally, the USDA stipulated a review of the electro-ejaculation procedures used to obtain semen samples for contraceptive research. Center concern about the two incidents of penile burns noted in the report already has led to the purchase of new equipment and the writing of new operating procedures.