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Trump’s USDA Lets Animal Abusers Off the Hook

A South Texas facility has been repeatedly penalized for violating animal treatment standards. Under newly loosened rules, will it and other offenders be held to account next time?

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A version of this story ran in the September / October 2019 issue.

On June 6, an inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s animal-welfare division made a macabre discovery. At a sprawling animal research facility in South Texas, 25 captive monkeys had not been fed for six days. They were in such bad shape that two of them had to be euthanized. In her report, the inspector concluded that the “lack of food was due to a miscommunication between employees” at Covance Research Products in Alice, a rural town about an hour west of Corpus Christi.

Covance, a multibillion-dollar company that tests pharmaceutical products on primates, is a repeat offender of the federal law that sets standards for the treatment of animals in research laboratories. USDA inspectors have found the company’s Alice location noncompliant at least five times since 2014. In two related incidents, 13 monkeys at the facility died from overheating when a thermostat malfunctioned.

The rule-breaking underscores an uncomfortable truth in the development of new pharmaceutical drugs and chemicals: The products are sometimes created at the expense of animals that are injured or killed in the process. Now, animal-rights advocates say the situation could get worse. Obama’s USDA let inspectors forgive some violations without writing them up; the Trump administration’s regulatory rollback machine lets licensees self-report violations to escape penalties.

“It’s not often we see such shoddy animal husbandry,”

The federal Animal Welfare Act requires that animal research facilities provide adequate food and water; ensure that animals are kept in a clean, safe environment; and give as-needed veterinary care. USDA conducts surprise inspections at facilities every one to three years and holds licensees to “modest” requirements, said Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.

But two relatively recent USDA rules, one announced in 2016 and another in 2017, favor industry over animals and shield wrongdoers from public view, Liss and other advocates say. The 2016 rule allowed USDA inspectors to chalk up some violations at facilities to “learning experiences” without listing them in inspection reports. Another lets facilities escape penalties if they voluntarily report incidents to the agency.

In July, two animal rights groups sued the USDA over the changes because the agency failed to go through a public comment process before enacting them. A USDA spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, one of the groups suing the USDA, called the infractions in Alice egregious. “It’s not often we see such shoddy animal husbandry,” he said. In 2014, a malfunctioning thermostat caused 13 primates to cook to death. USDA assessed a fine of only $31,500. No penalties have been announced in this year’s deaths.

Even if the company is fined, the amount is almost certain to be negligible compared with the $1.8 billion in revenue Covance reeled in during its first quarter last year. “These are facilities that are making a whole lot of money and can afford the best possible care if they recognize it as a priority,” Liss said.

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