Columbia's medical center in dispute over care of lab animals

Monday, October 13, 2003

NEW YORK -- 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.

Not perfect

"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 research.

"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.

'You get blacklisted'

"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."

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