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Overheated Room Blamed in Death of 7 Monkeys at UC Davis

Apologetic research officials say they won't use the auxiliary building again.

August 25, 2004|Amelia Neufeld | Times Staff Writer

A UC Davis medical research building was shut down this week after six research monkeys died of dehydration due to a heating malfunction in their room over the weekend, campus officials said. A seventh was later euthanized.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees inspection of animal research centers, has begun an investigation and will make an unannounced visit to the California National Primate Research Center soon, said USDA spokesman Larry Hawkins.

The monkeys had been housed in an overflow building four miles from the main research center, said center Director Dallas Hyde. The building, a five-room cinderblock structure with no windows and one door, will no longer be used to house animals, Hyde said.

"We just felt we can't ever allow this to happen again," Hyde said. "We will not be using the facility ever again. We really do care deeply for the animals."

Two lab technicians from the research center were doing a routine check at 8:30 a.m. Saturday when they opened the door to the holding room and were hit with a blast of hot air. The temperature was 115 degrees, said UC Davis spokesman Andy Fell.

Eight female cynomolgus monkeys, which had last been checked at 5 p.m. Friday, were lying in their cage.

"They did have access to water," Hyde said. "Yet the cages were hot to the touch, so I can envision the water being hot.... The water spigot was hot as well, which probably discouraged them from drinking."

A veterinarian arrived 10 minutes later and saw that two of the monkeys were alive. They were moved to the main primate center, where all the rooms are monitored with temperature sensors and alarms. They were given fluids intravenously. One monkey recovered fully, but the second had to be euthanized, Hyde said.

The USDA made an unannounced inspection of the primate center Aug. 9 and declared it satisfactory, Hawkins said. But not all buildings were inspected, he said. The overflow building, which housed some of the center's monkey breeding colony, might have been skipped, Hawkins said.

Though the federal Animal Welfare Act requires that temperatures in research animal facilities be kept within a certain range, there is no requirement for an alarm system, Hawkins said.

"It appears, on the surface, as if it's one of those unforeseen things," he said. "Like your air-conditioning system at home -- you don't expect it to get stuck in the heat cycle and melt everything."

Hyde said the center "does very well as a facility. We have had no citations -- a perfect record."

The center gets its funding primarily from the National Institutes of Health. An NIH administrator who oversees primate research centers nationwide said the incident would have no immediate impact on the center's funding.

"We are monitoring the situation very closely," said John Harding, the NIH administrator who oversees funding for primate research centers. "We've already talked with them, and it appears they are doing everything they can do to change the situation."

Harding said NIH scientists would visit the center Sept. 29 for a previously scheduled inspection, separate from the coming USDA inspection.

The research center houses 4,700 monkeys. Although the monkeys that died were in an overflow facility, Hyde said in an e-mail that the center was not overcrowded and could accommodate 1,000 to 2,000 more.

About half of the center's research monkeys are used for HIV/AIDS research, according to the center's website. Scientists also use the animals to study measles, asthma and Alzheimer's disease.

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