AR-News: Columbia Probed Over Lab Animal Treatment

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Sun Oct 12 18:25:02 EDT 2003

Whistleblower Entangles Columbia's Elite Medical Center in Dispute Over Care 
of Lab Animals

The Associated Press

NEW YORK Oct. 12 — A whistleblowing veterinarian has entangled Columbia 
University's prestigious medical center in a protracted dispute after alleging that 
baboons and other lab animals suffered from cruel or negligent treatment. 
A year after veterinarian Catherine Dell'Orto complained to senior medical 
center officials, the case remains very much alive. It is the subject of 
investigations by two federal agencies, and animal-rights activists are seeking 
punitive action against the medical center.
Dell'Orto has left the university, contending she was shunned after speaking 
up, but she continues to press her cause.
Columbia, meanwhile, has implemented reforms based on some of her complaints, 
but backed by federal investigators has concluded that other allegations were 
baseless. The university says one researcher Dell'Orto complained about has 
halted his experiments after receiving threatening e-mail, apparently from one 
of the veterinarian's supporters.
"Columbia doesn't claim to be perfect, but we try to be as close as humanly 
possibly," said Dr. Harvey Colten, the medical center's associate dean for 
"The extent to which some of these issues have continued, that's 
distracting," he told The Associated Press. "But in no way do we find it a problem to have 
the initial complaint raised we want people to come forward if they think 
there are problems."
Dell'Orto, 34, said her concerns date to late 2001 when as a postdoctoral 
fellow she complained to staff at Columbia's Institute of Comparative Medicine 
about the treatment of baboons undergoing surgery as part of research into 
stroke therapies.
For example, she contended that baboons who were operated on in some cases 
having an eyeball removed were left afterwards to suffer in their cages rather 
than being euthanized.
Dissatisfied with the response, she sifted through records and became 
convinced there were systemic problems of maltreatment, poor record-keeping and other 
violations of regulations regarding care of lab animals.
In October 2002, she presented her evidence to medical center officials. They 
ordered an in-house investigation and notified the U.S. Department of 
Agriculture, which regulates the use of large animals in laboratories.
"What I saw at Columbia was apathy on the part of the employees, and almost 
purposeful neglect on the part of veterinarians," Dell'Orto said in an 
interview with the AP.
Last December, worried that Columbia's in-house review would be self-serving, 
she contacted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has backed 
Dell'Orto's allegations with letters sent to federal investigators and 
prominent Columbia alumni. The activist group also is considering a more public 
campaign within the next few weeks on grounds that the reforms undertaken by 
Columbia so far are insufficient.
In a recent letter to the federal Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, PETA 
described Columbia's animal experimentation program as "shabby" and urged that 
it be suspended.
Dell'Orto resigned from her fellowship in February and is now a practicing 
veterinarian in Westchester County, just north of New York City.
"People at Columbia wouldn't talk to me," she said. "If you express concern, 
you get blacklisted."
Neither the USDA nor the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare have completed 
their investigations. But the USDA did issue findings on the bulk of 
Dell'Orto's allegations, based on its own inquiry and Columbia's in-house review.
The investigators determined that Dell'Orto was right in complaining of 
shoddy record-keeping and also concluded that 11 animals had been provided with 
"inadequate or questionable care."
On the other hand, investigators said they found no evidence of retaliation 
against Dell'Orto and no indication that the experiments she criticized such as 
the baboon surgery violated federal guidelines.
Colten said Columbia responded to the findings with swift corrective action, 
ordering better record-keeping, launching a review of the veterinary care 
program, and developing tighter criteria for euthanasia of lab animals.
One consequence of the controversy, Colten said, was a decision by Dr. E. 
Sander Connolly, a neurosurgeon, to suspend the stroke experiments.
"He felt under attack," said Colten, referring to a threatening e-mail which 
Connolly received. Colten said Connolly remained convinced that his 
experiments were humane and potentially valuable.
"We're all the losers if these studies don't go forward," Colten said. "Our 
primary goal is the healing of human disease. The only way we can do that is 
through experimentation, and sometimes that involves animals."
Columbia medical center:
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