PETA targets Auburn program

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Auburn, Ala. - Auburn University ordered an internal investigation after allegations of animal abuse and fund misappropriation stemmed from a nine-month undercover PETA operation in the veterinary college.

AUBURN, ALA. — Auburn University ordered an internal investigation after allegations of animal abuse and fund misappropriation stemmed from a nine-month undercover PETA operation in the veterinary college.

PETA filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Alabama Attorney General and Auburn University President Dr. Ed Richardson demanding the end of a canine kidney transplant program and a review of grant spending and multiple animal care violations.

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"The accusations from this group, an organization often associated with extremist and headline-grabbing tactics, are wrong and unjust and represent a disservice to the faculty and staff who strive every day to develop advancements in veterinary medicine and responsibly treat the animals in our care," says Dr. Tim Boosinger, dean of Auburn's College of Veterinary Medicine.

The charges followed PETA's February 2005 placement of undercover researcher Brian Davis, a veterinary student, at Auburn when the school partnered in a project with Iams, a dog-food production company that came under previous PETA scrutiny in 2002. Placed in the Scott-Ritchey Research Center, Davis instead focused on the veterinary college's canine kidney-transplant program.

With information gathered from hidden cameras, recordings and documentation, PETA alleges Auburn is responsible for the deaths of more than a dozen dogs after each underwent a kidney transplant in the college. "There were 14 clients whose owners paid upward of $15,000, and each one has since died," says Kate Turlington, PETA's manager of undercover investigation.

In complaints sent to the school in the fall, both PETA and Karen Smith, owner of one of the client dogs, demanded the end of the transplant program. Smith's dog Apache, an 11-month-old Chow Chow mix, died on Thanksgiving Day, 2005, three days after its transplant surgery.

But the request is moot, Boosinger says, because in November 2005, well before PETA's allegations arose, Auburn independently decided to end the program. "What is very important is that we made the decision 13 months ago to discontinue doing renal transplants because we weren't getting the results we had hoped for, based on preliminary research. We had discontinued this long before PETA's sensationalized attacks," Boosinger says. "It is frustrating that after we made decisions on our own that they attack us and tell us we need to stop doing renal transplants."

The college is also accused of misappropriating funds from a five-year, several million-dollar grant awarded by the National Institute of Health (NIH). "What we discovered and documented in our investigation was that everything was funded by that grant, whether affiliated with the grant or not," Turlington says.

PETA sent information to NIH in an attempt to get the awarded grant revoked, but to date they have received no response.

"NIH does not acknowledge that an inquiry is underway to forestall the mischief that could be done by people making frivolous complaints. What people hear are the charges. They go from that to assume something is utterly wrong," says Donald Ralbovsky, NIH spokesman.

Upon receiving complaints, the NIH Office of Animal Laboratory Welfare reviews the claim with the researcher and his/her affiliated institution to determine if an investigation is warranted, Ralbovsky says. If an investigation is completed and wrongdoing found, the grant fund can be terminated. But, Ralbovsky says, terminating a grant based on a complaint, which are most-often received for primate research, is "quite rare."

Additionally, charges of improper animal care, including the failure to provide exercise, socialization, sound housing, minimal pain, appropriate veterinary care and euthanasia, and proper staff training, among others, have come against Auburn.

Despite calling the allegations "sensationalized and misleading, Boosinger organized a board to investigate. "We are doing an internal review to determine if, in fact, there was anything that needs to be addressed."

Yet Auburn's investigation might be the only one taking place, despite PETA's attempts to involve multiple state organizations. USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) denied PETA's request for an investigation because they do not regulate clinical procedures, only research.

"Animal Care is charged with administration of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The AWA regulates the use of animals in research studies, but does not regulate the clinical practices of veterinary medicine. Animal Care, therefore, has no jurisdiction regarding the kidney transplant procedures conducted on the client-owned dogs at Auburn University," says a statement released by APHIS.

The offices of Alabama's Attorney General and Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners both confirmed they each received copies of the complaint, but advised they do not comment on or confirm the existence of an ongoing investigation until it has been completed and action needs to be taken.

Auburn's investigation will be completed in mid-January, and Boosinger says he and Richardson will determine if any corrective action needs to be taken.

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