THE BLOG
09/24/2013 03:41 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Report Reveals Worst Laboratory for Animal Welfare Violations

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Rockland Inc. rabbit. Image provided by USDA

One wouldn't think of rural Pennsylvania as home to the laboratory with the worst violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), but according to the watchdog group, Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! (SAEN), it is. Rockland Inc., an antibody production facility, has managed to garner the dubious title of "the nations worst lab of 2013" from SAEN. Given that most laboratories that use live animals in experiments are notorious for being secretive, and not many USDA reports see the light of day, Complaint No. E13-119 lodged against Rockland is probably one of the most egregious I have read.

In a SAEN press release, it states that the lab was cited for 26 animal welfare violations from March through April 2013 including, "inadequate veterinary care, inadequate enclosures, improper feeding, inadequate sanitation, and performance of unapproved experimental procedures." What is extremely disturbing about this issue is that prior to a whistleblower letter dated Feb. 24 2013, the USDA barely noticed this lab which begs the question - how many years had this animal abuse been going on, and how many years would it have gone on if not for this complaint?

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Rockland Inc. rabbit. Image provided by USDA

The whistleblower letter is grim reading. It accuses the facility of distracting USDA inspectors whilst other workers rushed around covering up violations. I would imagine it is also extremely likely that inspectors missed the most violent of accusations against the workers as it is unlikely people would abuse an animal in front of an inspector. The letter accuses Rockland Inc. of horrific abuses such as mice having their throats cut without anesthetic to bleed them whilst being held over a paper cup, guinea pigs being knocked out by dry ice and having heart puncture procedures done on them, some guinea pigs being bled without any anesthesia because they "bleed better," hamsters being killed for their pelts and testicles, cats and dogs being used in experiments and being kept quiet because those were on "special order." The letter goes on to state how the animal handlers are "beating, punching, kicking, stomping, twisting the animals heads such as goats and sheep and rabbits are tossed into cages and booted around on the floor, faces smacked into cages because the animals don't cooperate with employees." Now, I'm sorry, but on what planet do animals "cooperate" with having their throats cut, experimented on and being generally tortured? The same whistleblower also said that a goat was left to die in a septic well for months until maggots crawled up the drains and into the sinks.

According to one of the USDA reports, a Rockland employee stated that the rabbits used for blood draws are anesthetized but sometimes wake up during the intra-cardiac injection, a very invasive and painful procedure. If the rabbit wakes up they would then euthanize it by cervical dislocation, or in layman's terms - breaking its neck. The rabbits are apparently waking up during the procedure because they are being removed too soon from a CO2 chamber used for anesthetizing. Removing an animal before it is completely unconscious and breaking its neck are both violations of USDA Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) #50. As if this isn't horrific enough, it appears from the report that it is unclear to the USDA inspecting veterinarian if all rabbits were in fact under anesthesia during intra-cardiac procedures. These invasive procedures apparently were inadequately performed because the personnel were untrained. In addition to this, rabbits were reported to have masses of feces attached to their back legs, weight loss, sores, infected eyes, were generally uncared for, and living in broken and filthy cages.

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Rockland Inc. rabbit. Image provided by USDA

Rockland Inc. is not the only antibody lab that has been cited numerous times by the USDA for animal welfare violations. Santa Cruz Biotech is another laboratory that has a long history of violations. SAEN filed a complaint against Santa Cruz Biotech in 2012. The USDA also filed a complaint against the same lab in September of 2012 for repeated noncompliance and violations of the AWA. Apparently, the facility continued to amass animal welfare violations even after the USDA's complaint was filed.

These are not isolated incidents by any means. Animal welfare violations in research laboratories are endemic, and the USDA reports only reveal the tip of a very, very large iceberg of animal abuse, scientific misconduct, and the falsifying of research results. The USDA apparently cares enough to have cited these labs over and over again, expecting at the very least rudimentary animal care, but it is woefully inadequate at fining, inspecting, and citing labs. The behavior of Rockland Inc. and Santa Cruz Biotech is utterly unacceptable as is the slap on the wrist they received by the USDA. These labs need to be shut down immediately and the criminals responsible for such horrific animal abuse charged with violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The USDA also might want to realize these labs are running circles around them, and probably having a good old laugh about it all once they leave.