Feds Cite Planck Institute Over Animal Welfare. Activists Demand CEO's Head

Categories: Fire Ant
The Max Planck Institute for Neuroscience, in Northern Palm Beach, has hundreds of animals in its care, though "care" may not be quite the word. In the last fiscal year, according to USDA documents, 280 of those animals had their nervous systems experimented on. The animals did not choose to be there or to participate in the experiments.

Under federal law, the institute is required to meet certain standards in its treatment of animals. On two occasions last year, federal authorities found that those standards had not been met, and issued warnings to the institute. Animal welfare advocates at Broward-based ARFF argue that the USDA reports indicate "serious management problems" for which the institute's CEO and scientific director, Dr. David Fitzpatrick, should resign. 

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In an email to New Times, Planck Chief Operating Officer Ivan Baines stated that its research--regarding "fundamental questions about the biology of the brain"--cannot be done by computer simulation and "requires the use of laboratory animals."  He stated that the institute "is and has always been committed to maintaining the very highest level of humane care" for lab animals.

The USDA reports describe violations of several sorts. 

In May, the agency cited the institute over hiring procedures, finding inadequate review of the qualifications of staff hired to perform surgery and euthanasia on ferrets and tree shrews.

In August, the agency found multiple problems. Procedural violations included failure to notify the agency of the institute's change of address, and failure to document the use of anesthetics on animals in surgery (though institute staff told the agency anesthesia was, in fact, used "in every procedure"). 

Perhaps more seriously, the agency cited the institute for failure to allow its full time, attending veterinarian "appropriate authority" to "ensure the provision of adequate animal care." Specifically, in June, the institute instructed the vet to work remotely unless "specifically requested" to appear on-site. 

In the aftermath of that instruction there occurred "At least 2 adverse animal incidents including a dystocia [abnormal or difficult birth] which resulted in euthanasia of an animal and a severe thermal burn which occurred during a surgical procedure."

Regarding veterinary care, Baines stated that "the Animal Welfare Act does not require facilities to have a veterinarian on-site at all times," and that the institute employs an attending and a back-up vet "to ensure that animals receive needed care and treatment at any time of day or night, seven days per week."

Baines stated that the abnormal birth resulted from "a naturally occurring condition" and that the resulting euthanasia was done on the advice of a veterinarian. He noted that the USDA "properly did not cite [the birth and euthanasia] as a noncompliance issue." He stated that the thermal burn "was, of course, inadvertent" and treated "immediately," and that faulty equipment involved was replaced and "additional precautions" adopted to "minimize the likelihood" of the recurrence of such incidents.   

In a September 21 inspection, the USDA found no evidence of non-compliance at the institute, though on November 14, the agency issued a warning letter regarding the thermal burn incident.

There are fierce advocates on both sides of the debate over the use of laboratory animals for scientific experiment. The animals' numbers are estimated to run into the tens of millions annually, worldwide, most of them put to death following their research use. Radical animal rights groups have attacked research facilities and freed four-footed inmates; patient advocacy groups are similarly outraged, claiming that restrictions on the use of lab animals block medical progress.

For ourselves, we are (not unusually) of two minds. We eat meat and wear leather, so it would be hypocritical--or, at least, inconsistent--to argue that the welfare of animals always takes precedence over the wants and needs of homo sapiens. And whether or not there are adequate alternatives to lab animals in scientific research is a question above our pay grade.

The more immediate questions are the adequacy of animal care at Max Planck and the responsibility of Fitzpatrick, whose laboratory ARFF claims was the site of the "two adverse animal incidents." 

We will pursue those questions and update. 

Fire Ant--an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite--covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact fire.ant@browardpalmbeach.com



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