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US probes Harvard primate facility

Answers sought in 2014 zoo deaths

Harvard’s New England Primate Center. Globe File/1999

Harvard’s New England Primate Research Center, the long-running research institution set to shut down at the end of May, is being investigated by the US Department of Agriculture after a half dozen of the center’s cotton-top tamarins died two days after arriving at the Oregon Zoo last May.

The agency disclosed the investigation this week after the Globe reported a separate set of primate deaths. A dozen dehydrated monkeys were found dead or euthanized for poor health between 1999 and 2011.

“We cannot provide any specific information about Harvard’s New England Primate Research Center because there is an open investigation into the Center,” USDA spokeswoman Tanika Whittington wrote in an e-mail.

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A Harvard Medical School spokeswoman said the investigation was triggered by the shipment of nine tamarin monkeys from the primate center to the Oregon Zoo last May. Oregon news outlets reported that six of the monkeys died shortly after arriving May 22.

“We were deeply saddened to learn about the unfortunate event at the Oregon Zoo related to the cotton top tamarins,” the medical school said in a statement at the time.

Harvard released a log showing that the tamarins had been observed every four hours during their three-day trip and arrived “all alert and active” in Portland, Ore. “While we typically do not comment on transports, we feel it is important to share these documents that show the animals arrived at the Oregon Zoo safely and in good condition,” the statement said.

“The standard and safest method of transporting nonhuman primates in North America is through experienced ground carriers. The carrier is registered with the USDA, and it provided environmentally controlled, door-to-door transportation that met all USDA guidelines,” it added.

The Oregon Zoo, which planned to exhibit the animals, could not determine how they died. The federal investigation may clarify whether there were lapses that caused the deaths by either institution.

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“Pathologic exam of tissues showed systemic shock in all of the tamarins, which can be caused by a wide range of causes, and no specific cause was identified,” Tim Storms, an Oregon Zoo veterinarian, wrote in a memo last summer. “Five of the six had some degree of stress-related changes in muscle or adrenal gland tissues.”

The primate center, which once housed more than 2,000 monkeys, has only 116 animals remaining as it winds down operation due to both shifts in its research strategy and financial reasons. The medical school said Friday that none of its shipments of animals have had problems. According to federal documents obtained by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, most of the monkeys were to be shipped to other primate centers between September 2014 and January 2015, including facilities in Oregon, Wisconsin, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

The news of the investigation comes as the Globe separately reported this week about a string of monkey deaths at the Southborough center that involved dehydration. Between 2010 and 2012, there were four monkey deaths due to animal care problems at the center that drew intense regulatory scrutiny and revealed deep and longstanding problems with leadership and procedures.

The previously unknown deaths, involving squirrel monkeys, were described in a spreadsheet provided by a former director of Harvard’s New England Primate Research Center. The Agriculture Department said it could not comment on whether it would investigate those deaths because of the open investigation.

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The case descriptions included “tooth caught in jacket; unable to drink,” “no water spout in new cage; dehydration;” “water deprivation,” and “malfunctioning water line.” The descriptions suggested to the former director, Dr. Frederick Wang, and to outside specialists that deficiencies in animal care contributed to some of the deaths. Harvard said in a statement that the cases involving the squirrel monkeys had not been reported to an internal committee that receives reports of adverse events.

Dr. Paul Johnson, another former director of the Harvard primate center who now heads the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, said in an e-mail that the requirement for institutions to report and review adverse events through their internal animal care and use committees is clear.

“There is no question regarding the basic responsibilities of institutions that care for animals in research facilities: unanticipated adverse events should be reported,’’ Johnson wrote. “We have a clear and unwavering commitment to maintain the welfare of animals that we care for in research facilities and a responsibility to do all we can to reduce the chance of unexpected events.”

A federal agency that oversees animal care at the National Institutes of Health said that Harvard was in good standing and that the agency will not look past farther than the last three years when examining issues of noncompliance with animal care regulations.

But in response to questions about whether such issues should have been reviewed and reported, the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare said, “Repeated problems with watering systems that affect animal health are reportable. An institution’s animal care and use committee should be informed if such problems occur, and the institution would be expected to ensure correction of this type of problem.”

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Jeff Caswell, editor of the journal Veterinary Pathology, which published a 2014 paper that sparked the data on dehydrated monkeys to be released, said he has sent a letter to the authors asking for their response to the allegations. He has also requested a supporting letter from Harvard’s institutional ethics committee.

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