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Panel recommends ARS animal welfare procedure improvements

Phase 2 review of USDA's Agricultural Research Service finds ways to improve animal care oversight.

The second phase of reviewing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service animal welfare and care policies found no evidence of poor animal handling or abuse but did recommend establishing more defined guidelines for each location’s animal welfare oversight committees as well as attending veterinarians for the research facilities.

The ARS – Animal Handling and Welfare Review Panel visited five ARS research sites in the aftermath of a New York Times report earlier this year which unveiled a scathing report on a Nebraska ARS’s handling of animals.

The panel visited five ARS research sites: the Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, Montana; the Livestock Behavior Research Unit in West Lafayette, Indiana; the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory in Athens, Georgia; the Richard B. Russell Agricultural Research Center in Athens, Georgia; and the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa.

Dr. Aaron Olsen, chair of the panel and director of the Laboratory Animal Research Center at Utah State University, said a key finding was the role and expectations of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) and attending veterinarian is not uniformly understood at all ARS facilities. The primary function of the IACUC is to act as an agent for the welfare and well-being of animals used in research. The attending veterinarian plays a crucial role in promoting animal welfare.

For instance, at the National Animal Disease Center the panel found that IACUC protocols listed the researcher (who is also a veterinarian) as the only contact for veterinary care issues. The panel recommended a research veterinarian should not also fill the role of clinical veterinarian for treatment or handling of animals beyond the required research protocol.

The panel recommended ARS should work to harmonize expectations of the IACUC across all sites using animals in research. The report explains that for IACUC to fulfill its welfare and oversight functions, it is vital for it to have adequate administrative and financial support. The panel urged facility directors to “make animal welfare oversight responsibilities a priority when considering budgetary needs and provide strong administrative support to individuals tasked with participating in oversight activities.”

Olsen shared that it was also found that some IACUC members felt that the time served on the committee was a “diversion or distraction” from their main research goals. Participation in research oversight activities, such as service on the animal welfare oversight committees should be an important part of an individual’s career development path. Such service should be appropriately considered and recognized during routine personnel evaluations and as part of considerations for advancement or promotion.

The panel wrote in the report that in most instances, the physical facilities were adequate for the research being conducted and, in some instances, physical facilities were excellent. However, the advancing age of some facilities was apparent. The panel recommended adequate funding should be provided to maintain current facilities and to upgrade or replacing aging facilities.

The panel also recommended that ARS should provide means for animal care staff to share innovations and best practices both within and without the ARS organization. Concurrent with sharing best practices, the panel recommended ARS should develop means to identify and appropriately recognize individuals who provide exceptionally good animal care and/or develop unique and innovative techniques that lead to improved animal welfare.

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