Federal regulators have fined Harvard Medical School $24,036 for repeated animal welfare violations in its care of monkeys used in research, an unusual penalty for an academic institution.
The fine, announced by the US Department of Agriculture on Wednesday covers 11 violations from February 2011 through July 2012, including four involving the death of an animal.
The government's decision to penalize Harvard for the violations, most of which had been previously disclosed, concludes a lengthy investigation of the medical school's two animal facilities that led to changes in leadership and intense public scrutiny.
Most of the problems occurred at Harvard's New England Primate Research Center in Southborough. After investing significant resources to improve care and staff oversight, Harvard made a surprise announcement in April that it intends to largely shut the center down by 2015. Harvard's much smaller animal facility in the Longwood Medical Area in Boston, with 45 primates, will continue to operate.
The Department of Agriculture licenses about 1,300 animal research facilities across the country, and has often cited the operations for violations. But financial penalties are relatively rare. In the past two years, about eight other research facilities have been hit with fines, ranging from $8,571 to $38,571, according to the department's website, and five of those included violations involving monkeys.
Harvard Medical School released a statement saying officials there think the federal fine is appropriate. "The leadership of the school cares deeply about upholding exemplary standards of care," it said.
Regulators could have fined Harvard as much as $10,000 for each violation, bringing the total potential penalty to $110,000. Harvard said in its statement that it believes the much lower assessment is attributable to the "excellent work of those members of our community who took aggressive action to institute rigorous quality improvements that benefit animal safety and welfare."
The medical school enlisted an independent panel of scientists that reviewed its primate operations and made recommendations last year for improvements, including adding several leadership positions to tighten oversight, and re-evaluating training and policies to ensure that they encourage communication and reporting of problems.
Several of the violations at Harvard, including a number of the animal deaths, appeared to involve incomplete training or inconsistent oversight.
In one December 2011 incident, employees failed to notice that a watering device malfunctioned and two primates became dehydrated at the Southborough primate center. One had to be euthanized.
Two months later, another primate at the center became dehydrated when employees failed to give it a water bottle. That animal had to be euthanized, too.
In April 2012, a macaque monkey died in its cage on the medical school campus after becoming enmeshed in a chain while playing with a toy designed to enrich the lives of research animals. Three months later, a federal inspector noticed a monkey with a metal object in its mouth at the Southborough campus, according to Department of Agriculture records. That object was determined to be a metal clip from a fastener for another enrichment device.
Animal activists expressed disappointment that the fine was only a fraction of what Harvard could have been fined.
"For an institution that receives $185 million annually in taxpayer funds alone, half of which is spent on animal experiments, a $24,000 fine for years of abusing and neglecting monkeys won't motivate Harvard to do better by animals," Justin Goodman, a spokesman for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote in an e-mail. "Thankfully, the school already recognizes that tormenting monkeys is not the future of science and made the laudable decision to completely shut down its nightmarish primate center by 2015, meaning that thousands of animals will be spared this same horrible fate."
Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, said he was appalled and pointed out the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, received a much higher fine of nearly $39,000 for just two citations that led to three primate deaths.
When asked about the Department of Agriculture's system for meting out fines, department spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said in a statement, "In Animal Care, the mission is the welfare of the regulated animals so the focus is helping licensees come into compliance with Animal Welfare Act regulations."
The agency has issued some large fines in the past. One of the largest penalties against a research institution in recent memory is a $129,500 fine paid in 2002 by the University of Connecticut to resolve more than 50 violations involving pain management and care of 22 mole rats and a rabbit.
Oregon Health & Science University was penalized in 2012 for four violations at its National Primate Research Center in 2009 that resulted in five animal deaths. The fine, $11,679, included one incident in which a drinking system failed, leaving three macaques severely dehydrated. Only one survived.
Kerry Taylor, associate director of Oregon's primate center, said he believed the fine was the center's first. He's only been at the facility about 18 months, but has worked in the animal research field for 20 years.
"It's historically a rare event for research institutions," Taylor said.
"It's not a perfect world, people make mistakes, and things happen," he said of those who work in animal research facilities. "But people are well informed and well trained, and they do their darndest to make sure things are run right."
Deborah Kochevar, dean of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and chairwoman of the independent committee Harvard appointed to review its operations, said researchers generally uphold high standards.
"The stakes are very high," Kochevar said. "You want the very best for the animals. You want the very best for the science, and you want to continue to be funded by the [National Institutes of Health]."
Harvard noted in its statement that the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, the trade association that accredits animal research labs, recently renewed the medical school's full accreditation.
Kay Lazar can be reached at Kay.Lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar. Carolyn Y. Johnson contributed to this story.