Federal inspectors issue warning after finding animal welfare violations at Virginia Tech

By: - September 1, 2021 12:02 am

The Torgersen Bridge at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. (Ray Meese)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an official warning to Virginia Tech last week after an inspection found multiple animal welfare violations at the school’s veterinary facilities.

In the most severe incident, a study “involving traumatic brain injuries” led to the death of four out of six Gottingen pigs included in the experiment. The first pig died during the procedure and “blood was noted on the intubation tube,” according to a USDA report detailing the June 29 inspection. A second pig also died with “more blood noted.” The two surviving pigs “exhibited abnormal neurological signs” and one was visibly trembling after the experiment.

“In total only two of the six pigs used survived,” the agency reported. “At no point during the six procedures was the attending veterinarian notified of the adverse events occurring.”

While the incident took place on Feb. 4, the study’s lead investigator did not report it to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee — a federal group that oversees laboratory animal research — until two weeks later. The committee reviewed the event and found the investigator had “attempted to troubleshoot the problem,” making several unapproved changes to the study’s procedures rather than stopping the experiment after the first pig died.

Additionally, the experiment’s protocol had not been thoroughly reviewed by the university. The committee found that for some procedures, researchers had not sufficiently explored alternatives that could have minimized pain and distress to the animals involved.

“Virginia Tech has been aware of the USDA concerns and has been working with them since the inspection to address the issues raised,” Mark Owczarski, the associate vice president for university relations, said in a statement to the Mercury. “We are doing so with great diligence and care and we believe that all matters will be addressed.”

Owczarski said he did not have additional information on specific actions the university has taken to correct the violations.

Federal inspectors also found multiple problems with Virginia Tech’s animal housing. Seven sheep and five cow pastures do not provide any shade for the animals “by either natural or artificial means,” the report noted. In one pasture, sheep were standing in the thin shadow cast by an electrical line in an effort to find shade.

In another pasture, inspectors found an overweight dairy cow lying on its side. A veterinarian diagnosed the animal — part of the university’s veterinary teaching herd — with heat stress due to its weight and the outdoor temperature and humidity. Natural shade and trees were “available” to the animals, the report found, but located far away from the pasture.

Owczarski said Virginia Tech is “is committed to the highest standards of care for all teaching and research animals.” The university participates in an international accreditation program that assesses the humane treatment of animals in institutional settings.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which highlighted the violations in a news release, called on the school to  end its animal research and “redirect its resources” toward other methodologies.

The organization has been critical of Tech and other Virginia universities for their animal research practices. The State Inspector General opened two investigations last year after PETA claimed that both Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia misused state funds by conducting experiments on animals they planned to kill during the pandemic.

“Virginia Tech rakes in millions of dollars for experiments on animals but can’t manage to abide by minimal animal welfare regulations,” Kathy Guillermo, PETA’s senior vice president of laboratory investigations, said in a statement on Wednesday.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.