MADISON — A government lab in Madison that researches dangerous illnesses such as chronic wasting disease and West Nile virus has mishandled some of the animals used in testing and needs increased oversight, an environmental group alleges in a complaint filed Thursday.
Public records obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility cast doubt on the validity of research conducted at the National Wildlife Health Center, said Laura Dumais, a spokeswoman for the Maryland-based group.
In its complaint filed with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the group alleges "a loss of scientific integrity" and urges the department to allow an outside group to accredit its animal research facilities, including the Madison research center, which is the principal wildlife disease laboratory of the U.S. Geological Survey, the scientific research arm of the Department of Interior.
U.S. Geological Survey spokeswoman A.B. Wade said the complaint had "a number of inaccuracies." Wade said an independent animal care and use expert inspected the facility once in 2013 or 2014 and found no animal welfare violations but did note staffing shortages.
According to the complaint, necropsies were performed on only a small percentage of the animals that died or were euthanized at the center. The complaint also noted eight animal care-related violations that were reported to the National Institutes of Health from 2010 to 2014, including the deaths of 16 mallard ducklings in transit, the discarding of a live vole with its bedding, and the inadequate training of staffers who work with the animals.
Wade said the facility performs necropsies only when the cause of death is not apparent. She also said the center has hired a full-time attending veterinarian and lead care technician since the inspection concluded the facility was understaffed. The facility employs more than 70 scientists who study animal diseases, according to its website.
The environmental group says submitting to outside accreditation, as some government facilities choose to do, would ensure the department resolves past issues and complies with scientific standards. The National Wildlife Health Center is regularly inspected by a committee that reports to the NIH.
Dr. Howard Steinberg, a veterinary pathologist at UW-Madison, was part of the committee for several years beginning in 2006.
While he doesn't recall seeing anything particularly alarming, he believes that "an institute of that stature" would benefit from a voluntary external accreditation.
"The major issue is the fact that we felt they should be accredited by an agency that normally accredits animal care and use programs," Steinberg said.