Feds to check animal abuse claims at Utah labs

Feds to check animal abuse claims at Utah labs

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Federal officials say they'll look into complaints by the animal rights group PETA about the treatment of animals at University of Utah research facilities.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said one of its agents spent eight months working undercover in the labs and documented neglectful and harmful conditions.

PETA said a cat had its skull cut open so electrodes could be implanted on its brain, and kittens died after chemicals were injected into their brains.

"The actions of the UU staff show a flagrant disregard for the law and for the animals for whom they are responsible. Noncompliance at UU appears to have become business as usual -- a state of affairs that must not be allowed to continue," the group said this week in its complaints to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health.

Officials at the NIH said Friday they had not yet received PETA's complaint, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it will look into the complaints and make an unannounced visit to the facilities soon.

"We take any and all complaints seriously, whether they're allegations of wrongdoing or animal mistreatment," said Dave Sacks, an agency spokesman.

USDA licenses animal research operations and is charged with making sure they comply with the federal Animal Welfare Act, which regulates the treatment of animals in research labs. Sacks said the University of Utah is in good standing and has had no compliance problems.

University officials said they'll also investigate PETA's allegations but emphasized the research labs are subject to regular, unannounced inspections by state and federal regulators.

"We model the highest level of requirements for animal-care certification," the university said in a statement. "Allegations of misconduct are always taken seriously by the university, even when such charges are made by an individual who misrepresented herself in order to gain employment within the university's labs."

The university said animal research is conducted only when the work has a "valuable scientific purpose" and is aimed at combating disease and easing human suffering.

Current projects include gene experiments with mice to study human neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's, the university said. Other government-funded research is aimed at understanding how aging causes declines in human vision, memory and other functions.

"The primary purpose of all university research is to help people live longer, fuller lives," the university said.

PETA said its agent -- identified only as "LZ" in the complaints -- worked as an animal support technician at the university from February 2009 to October 2009. During that time she took notes and shot video.

Among PETA's complaints were that animals didn't get adequate veterinary care, that suffering animals weren't quickly euthanized and that primates were not housed "in an environment that met their psychological and physical needs."

They also said the university buys dogs and cats from animal shelters for use in "cruel and invasive experiments," including one in which dogs' necks were cut open so that medical devices could be implanted.

National Institutes of Health officials said the animal research it supports is based upon the health needs of the nation.

"While this research is critically important, NIH is equally committed to ensuring the welfare of animals who contribute to this research," NIH said in a statement.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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