By Peter Vancini
An animal welfare watchdog group is alleging that “gross negligence” led to the death of a research monkey in a UMass Amherst animal care facility on Oct. 15, 2015. The marmoset was severely burned while it recovered from surgery. The incident was noted in a May 2016 inspection report by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Activist Jodie Weiderkehr doesn’t believe the federal review went far enough. Weiderkehr is the founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Center for Ethical Science and is calling on the USDA to conduct a deeper investigation into the incident and assess fines.
“I would hope the USDA would fine UMass Amherst the maximum,” she says. “I think that not only should they be fined, but I also think that the experiments being done should be stopped.”
As a result of the animal’s death, the UMass Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee has revised its policy to include testing equipment prior to surgeries.
Common marmosets, small monkeys native to Brazil, have been used as stand-ins for humans in medical research since the 1960s, according to the National Primate Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. As of January 2016, UMass Amherst says it kept 28 common marmosets for research on the “social, behavioral, and biological systems of animals.”
The marmoset died at UMass after lab staff members applied a warming pad to the animal as it recovered from a vasectomy, according to a statement provided by UMass spokesperson Daniel Fitzgibbons. Research animals sometimes undergo vasectomies to keep them from reproducing while in captivity.
The animal’s burns were then treated, unsuccessfully, by staff using analgesics, fluids, and topical medications, according to the statement.
J. Paul Spurlock is the university’s director of animal care services and attending veterinarian. When reached by telephone, Spurlock said, “The fact that you can reach me indicates we’re not trying to cover anything up or hide anything. We’re fully accessible, but by campus policy I’m not at liberty to discuss it.”
The USDA report did not detail the use of warming pads, but indicated that an “alternative method” was applied to the primate following the failure of a heating blanket. The animal sustained “thermal injuries” and died 72 hours later.
A review by the UMass Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee in response to the incident procedures were revised to include the testing of all equipment — including heating blankets — prior to surgeries and that the facility keep backups on hand.
Paula Clifford is the executive director of Americans for Medical Progress, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for the use of laboratory animals in medical research.
“On rare occasions errors and accidents do occur,” Clifford, who reviewed the USDA report but is otherwise unconnected to the research project, said in an e-mail interview.
“That is what appears to have happened here,” she continued. “The research community always strives to minimize errors, regrets those that do occur, and cares deeply about the animals.  As in any human endeavor, there can be mistakes. That is why it is important to correct them, report them, and take action to minimize risk of re-occurrence.”
The USDA has not fined the university, but maximum fines for violating the Animal Welfare Act are as much as $10,000 per violation, per animal, per day. The USDA declined to comment on the incident for this article. The Advocate has filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request with the department seeking further details about actions that lead to the marmoset’s death.
“My nonprofit, which is a very small grassroots organization, has found violations such as this about six or seven in the last month [nationwide],” Weiderkehr says. “So these are very commonplace. Very often, it’s just a matter of finding them and exposing them to the public.”
“The university is fully cognizant of its responsibilities for animal care,” UMass officials wrote in an email. “This regrettable incident was promptly reported according to federal regulations.” •
Peter Vancini can be reached at