Five alpacas at a Davis-based research company died in July after playing in a pasture.
The cause? A brush pile contained clippings of oleander, the decorative shrub or tree that adorns freeway medians and backyards all around California.
Now an animal welfare group is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to levy a $50,000 fine against Antibodies Inc. – $10,000 for each alpaca.
In a required report to the National Institutes of Health, Davis-based Antibodies Inc. stated that a maintenance employee put oleander in a brush pile in a pasture where its laboratory animals regularly were let out for playtime.
The pile was not within the line of sight of the staff who put eight of the company’s alpacas in the pasture. It was found only after an investigating officer came to the facility to look for the source.
Finding no oleander along the fence, he inspected the brush pile and found oleander clippings. The investigator then watched as the employee brought a load of brush in his personal vehicle to add to the pile, the report stated.
The employee, a 10-year veteran of the company who was not identified, was shocked to learn of the alpaca deaths and his apparent role in the incident, the Antibodies report stated.
“The establishment of a ‘burn pile’ in an area accessible to the alpacas was poor judgment,” the report said. “The employee has been formally reprimanded and will be trained on documents arising from this incident.”
Michael Budkie, co-founder of the Stop Animal Exploitation Now group based outside Cincinnati, said that he had asked USDA leaders to impose the maximum allowable fine under the Animal Welfare Act – $10,000 for each alpaca that died.
Budkie’s group regularly submits public records requests to the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare because, he said, the people have a right to know what’s going on in research facilities where the work is supposedly for the public benefit.
“It’s extremely serious any time negligence kills animals inside a laboratory but especially in this instance,” Budkie said. “This was something where animals literally died because of negligence. We believe this facility deserves to receive the maximum penalty.”
The alpacas play a central role in the company’s development of antibodies that can fight off disease and remove bacteria from the body.
Produced by the immune system, antibodies are used by research, pharmaceutical and diagnostic labs across the country to study or to diagnose medical conditions such as tumors, HIV-AIDS, Lyme disease, hepatitis and other illnesses.
To produce antibodies for this work, companies such as Antibodies give animals regular injections of substances that produce the antibodies they wish to harvest. In the past, frequent bleeding was required to harvest the antibodies from the animals, but the chief executive officer of Antibodies Inc. said that is no longer necessary.
“As science progresses, and with the recent advances in molecular biological and genetic engineering approaches, we now are able to make antibodies by immunizing the alpacas with non-pathogenic materials and simply and painlessly taking a blood sample from which we can isolate the antibody producing cells to create antibody libraries,” said Antibodies CEO Richard Krogsrud. “These libraries can provide many different antibodies without further treating the animals. The alpacas are not harmed and like the goats and rabbits in our charge, live a long life under good care.”
This maintenance employee’s actions fell outside the scope of the company’s lab work, Krogsrud said, adding that he hopes coverage of the incident will increase Californians’ awareness of just how toxic oleander can be to both humans and animals.
Krogsrud said he and his staff miss the five alpacas that died: Prodigy, Cappuccino, Little Apollo, Pharoah and Dakota. Three survived: Big Apollo, Mango and Chase.
“Big Apollo survived the accidental poisoning due to heroic actions by the animal crew in getting him over to the UC Davis emergency vet clinic and the fantastic work by the UCD veterinarians,” Krogsrud said.
To prevent future tragedies like this one, Antibodies Inc. has created policies, procedures and documents to educate employees on such matters as where to put brush piles and how to identify poisonous plants. Axel Wolff, deputy director of the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, wrote Krogsrud to tell him that his office concurred with the measures the company had taken to ensure compliance.
Budkie said it’s up to the USDA to level a penalty against Antibodies Inc. that shows antibody companies that they should exercise greater care with the animals at their facilities. His nonprofit has pushed for USDA fines that were subsequently imposed against other companies in the immunochemistry field.