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Allegations of animal mistreatment prompt PETA to file complaints against Princeton

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed two federal complaints against the University on Monday, alleging the mistreatment of marmoset monkeys.

According to the complaints, submitted separately to the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, campus laboratory workers placed at least one marmoset monkey in a ferret exercise ball and rolled the ball through the hallways to entertain themselves.

The incident took place last month in the laboratory of psychology professor Asif Ghazanfar. PETA learned of the alleged mistreatment when contacted by a person they describe as an anonymous whistleblower, who passed along an email about the incident from Ghazanfar to his graduate students and laboratory staff.

In the June 22 message, Ghazanfar wrote that the laboratory members involved had shown no “common sense, sense of decency or leadership.” His email reminded the entire group to treat the animals with respect.

“The marmosets are not in the lab for your amusement,” he wrote. “To force them into contexts for which there is no scientific justification is reprehensible and, frankly, unethical.”

All of the materials submitted by PETA to the federal agencies, as well as messages sent to the University, were released to The Daily Princetonian and are included in this article.

Despite Ghazanfar’s email, PETA senior laboratory oversight specialist Alka Chandna said the professor should have taken the formal step of reporting the incident to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which she said is required to investigate all animal welfare concerns. She added that Ghazanfar never filed a report, according to the PETA whistleblower.

Director for Research Integrity and Assurance Stuart Leland, who was hired two years ago in the wake of similar claims of animal mistreatment, deferred comment to University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua. In turn, Mbugua said he could not confirm the whistleblower’s claim because the administration is still looking into the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Ghazanfar did not respond to a request for comment.

After the whistleblower reached out earlier this month, Chandna explained that the animal welfare group tailored complaints to the different sets of rules enforced by each federal agency. The complaint to the USDA expressed concerns that the University had violated the Animal Welfare Act, while the NIH complaint accused Ghazanfar of breaking the federal guidelines that came with his project’s federal grants.

Both complaints specifically charge the University with the failure to treat animals appropriately, to ensure that employees who handle animals are qualified to perform their duties and to house primates in secure enclosures.

According to Chandna, PETA received similar allegations of disrespect and mistreatment in the same laboratory three years ago. Noting that the University has been cited for 23 violations of the Animal Welfare Act since 2009, Chandna said repeated violations of this nature reflect a culture of noncompliance and disregard.

“Princeton has some very deep soul-searching to do. They have to do an audit of all of their laboratories. They have to send a clear message to animal experimenters, the principal investigators and anybody who uses animals about how the distress and the pain of these animals need to be minimized.”

However, Mbugua said the University takes allegations of mistreatment seriously and is committed to the care and welfare of animals. “Unannounced inspection visits since November 2011 have not found any noncompliant items,” he added.

PETA has asked the federal agencies to investigate the whistleblower’s claims. If the claims are substantiated, the group’s suggested consequences include enhanced monitoring, repayment of certain federal funds, citations against the University and fines against the facility.

Chandna also wrote letters to Ghazanfar and University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83. She urged them to place the marmosets in a sanctuary accredited by the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, noting that PETA would love for the current experiment to continue outside the mistreatment-prone lab setting. In addition, she requested that Ghazanfar and Eisgruber conduct investigations and ban students and staff who mishandled the marmosets from working with animals in University facilities.

She said PETA hopes for a response from the NIH within two months. The USDA told the animal rights group that it must wait three months before filing a Freedom of Information Act request for the results of the investigation.

Mbugua said that the University can not speak to what the USDA and NIH might do due to the fact that agencies have their own procedures.

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