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Federal inspectors issue warning after finding animal welfare violations at Virginia Tech

The Torgersen Bridge at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
The Torgersen Bridge at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.(Ray Meese)
Published: Sep. 1, 2021 at 7:16 AM EDT
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an official warning to Virginia Tech last week after an inspection found multiple animal welfare violations at the school’s veterinary facilities.

In the most severe incident, a study “involving traumatic brain injuries” led to the death of four out of six Gottingen pigs included in the experiment. The first pig died during the procedure and “blood was noted on the intubation tube,” according to a USDA report detailing the June 29 inspection. A second pig also died with “more blood noted.” The two surviving pigs “exhibited abnormal neurological signs” and one was visibly trembling after the experiment.

“In total, only two of the six pigs used survived,” the agency reported. “At no point during the six procedures was the attending veterinarian notified of the adverse events occurring.”

While the incident took place on Feb. 4, the study’s lead investigator did not report it to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee — a federal group that oversees laboratory animal research — until two weeks later. The committee reviewed the event and found the investigator had “attempted to troubleshoot the problem,” making several unapproved changes to the study’s procedures rather than stopping the experiment after the first pig died.

Additionally, the experiment’s protocol had not been thoroughly reviewed by the university. The committee found that for some procedures, researchers had not sufficiently explored alternatives that could have minimized pain and distress to the animals involved.

“Virginia Tech has been aware of the USDA concerns and has been working with them since the inspection to address the issues raised,” Mark Owczarski, the associate vice president for university relations, said in a statement to the Mercury. “We are doing so with great diligence and care and we believe that all matters will be addressed.”

Owczarski said he did not have additional information on specific actions the university has taken to correct the violations.

Federal inspectors also found multiple problems with Virginia Tech’s animal housing. Seven sheep and five cow pastures do not provide any shade for the animals “by either natural or artificial means,” the report noted. In one pasture, sheep were standing in the thin shadow cast by an electrical line in an effort to find shade.

In another pasture, inspectors found an overweight dairy cow lying on its side. A veterinarian diagnosed the animal — part of the university’s veterinary teaching herd — with heat stress due to its weight and the outdoor temperature and humidity. Natural shade and trees were “available” to the animals, the report found, but located far away from the pasture.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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