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Harvard shows changes at primate lab

Independent panel to review center as training, daily checks are intensified

SOUTHBOROUGH - In a room lined with monkey cages, country music softly twangs beneath the chirps of excitable cotton-top tamarins. Nearby, a “Tom and Jerry’’ cartoon plays to a room full of rhesus macaques.

The animals, used in biomedical experiments or for breeding, are housed in cages labeled with their names - Bug, Dude, or May, for example - an identification number, and now, their weight. This change, to ensure the monkeys are placed in the right size cages, is one of a slew of steps being implemented at the New England Primate Research Center after the deaths of four monkeys in less than two years.

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Harvard Medical School officials gave a Globe reporter a rare tour of the facility this week to demonstrate the generally low-tech fixes intended to increase accountability of workers and add backup systems that will prevent the types of mistakes in care that contributed to the deaths and other harm to monkeys. Harvard did not allow photographs, citing school policy.

The visit coincided with Harvard’s announcement of an independent committee charged with reviewing the management, logistics, operations, and staffing of the center, which houses more than 2,000 monkeys. In an inspection report released last month, the federal government cited the center for three serious violations of animal welfare regulations.

“There’s no one here I’ve met who is not dedicated to the animals and who is not heartbroken about the adverse incidents that have occurred,’’ said Mark Barnes, the interim managing director, who joined the center last week, taking a leave of absence from his job as Harvard’s senior associate provost for research. “This offers a way of fixing this in a very permanent way. Harvard doesn’t want to be second best at anything. . . . We’re going to make this right.’’

New research projects were suspended at the center in late February, and 12 experiments are on hold as the staff focus on the care of the animals, identifying problems and fixing them. Many of the solutions involve formalizing procedures that were already in place, or creating better training, supervision, and backup systems.

The deaths and other incidents revealed lapses in procedures, but the specific errors were different. In February, a cotton-top tamarin monkey was found in poor condition, without a water bottle in its cage, and had to be euthanized. In December, a malfunctioning water system was not noticed by staff and two squirrel monkeys were severely dehydrated. One had to be euthanized. In October, a monkey escaped while being removed from a cage for an imaging procedure and later died. In June 2010, a monkey that had died of natural causes was accidentally left in its cage while it went through a high-temperature cage washer.

During the tour Tuesday, monkeys were seen living in cages of varying dimensions, depending on the size of the animal and the number living in each cage. Some live alone, others in pairs or larger groups. Mirrors dangle outside some cages, and in others monkeys play with plastic toys. To keep the animals stimulated, music is sometimes played or children’s programming is shown on a screen set up at the end of the room.

Center officials pointed out some of the seemingly straightforward changes made:

■ Staff were retrained in how to open and close cage doors safely while transferring animals for cage-cleaning, after a squirrel monkey’s leg was fractured when a door slammed down on it.

■ Staff members now denote completed tasks, such as food checks, with their initials rather than checkmarks on a form posted outside each monkey room, to increase accountability.

■ After the monkey went through the cage washer two summers ago, new procedures were instituted. Objects, such as those monkeys use for play, are now removed from the cages before washing, since the dead monkey was not noticed because it had crawled into a tube.

■ Afternoon rounds were formally instituted this month. Each animal is checked to make sure it has been fed, has a working watering system or full water bottle, is locked and secure in its cage, is in a properly-sized cage, and looks healthy. Such checks were done in the past but on a less formal basis.

For example, after a severely dehydrated squirrel monkey had to be euthanized last December, it was discovered that a staff member had not been checking that every automatic water spigot in every cage was working. The new systems reinforce that staff must check every cage’s water supply every day.

These fixes may improve the safety of monkeys but a culture change is also needed, said an animal rights activist who has been critical of the primate center. “Little changes like that may help someone notice that a monkey has no water bottle or died, but people should be paying attention to those things, whether or not there’s a box to check,’’ said Justin Goodman, associate director of the laboratory investigations department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Barnes said the center is hiring nine additional staff to add resources and create new layers of oversight.

The US Department of Agriculture is continuing its investigation and could issue warnings or fines of up to $10,000 if it determines that the center has violated the Animal Welfare Act.

The new seven-person external committee includes veterinarians, directors of other primate centers, and other specialists.

Deborah Kochevar, chairwoman of the committee and dean of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, said the first meeting has yet to be scheduled and it would be premature to comment on the direction the committee will take in its investigation.

“The people who run the center are doing absolutely everything in their power to address the issues,’’ Kochevar said. “It’s something we all want to see fixed and done correctly.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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