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UC Berkeley researchers’ errors resulted in deaths of 22 lab animals

Errors by UC Berkeley animal researchers led to the deaths of 22 animals from starvation, suffocation or botched surgeries, and to the suffering of countless others from 2015 to 2017 that received too little pain medication or simply weren’t fed, watered or monitored, according to correspondence acquired by an animal-rights group.

The animals include three monkeys, as well bats, rats, mice and chicks.

Their deaths and suffering reflect a “multi-year pattern of abuse, neglect and incompetence” at UC Berkeley, Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now wrote Chancellor Carol Christ on Tuesday.

The problems occurred despite an $8,750 fine imposed in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after UC Berkeley researchers failed to give five voles any water for five days. The long-tailed rodents all died of thirst.

The animal-rights group called on Christ to conduct an independent investigation of animal experimentation practices on the campus.

On Wednesday, Christ’s spokesman, Dan Mogulof, said UC Berkeley has a “robust system of oversight,” and no additional review appears to be needed.

“The university cares deeply about these animals and is always looking for ways to improve,” he said.

As required under federal law, UC Berkeley researchers reported their errors and neglect in 11 letters to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare in 2016 and 2017.

The USDA found additional errors during three inspections of the animal labs in 2016 and 2017.

In each letter to the federal agency, Paul Alivisatos, Christopher McKee, or others who have served as vice chancellor for research, said they changed procedures or retrained researchers who harmed the animals.

In January 2016, McKee reported, five mice died after researchers gave them no food for at least 72 hours; two mice died a day later, also of apparent starvation; and “another 10 cages contained “ravenously hungry” mice that had also not been fed. Two other mice became severely dehydrated that month when no one checked their watering device.

Lab staff were retrained, McKee wrote federal officials that month.

In August 2015, one chick died and two others had to be euthanized after an inadequately trained researcher performed eight eye operations on the chicks, then failed to monitor them afterward, Alivisatos reported.

In his report to federal officials, he called the act “serious noncompliance” with federal policy on humane care of lab animals, and said the researcher who conducted the surgeries has been prohibited from performing unsupervised surgeries except on cadavers, and that other staff have been retrained.

Four bats suffocated in March 2016 after a researcher placed too many bats in a cage, Alivisatos reported.

Alivisatos told federal officials this was a “very unfortunate accident,” and that fewer bats would be put in a single cage in the future.

In June, lab staff had to amputate the toe of a 10-year-old Rhesus macaque monkey after staff left its cage too close to another monkey’s, according to a USDA inspection report. A monkey in the second cage unlatched the first monkey’s door. The monkey scrambled out and climbed on top of the other cage, where that monkey bit its toe.

The inspector admonished the university to handle lab animals appropriately.

That was the second incident involving a primate since February 2016, when a researcher failed to notice that a water hose was disconnected on a cage.

This deprived two monkeys of water for at least 24 hours, Alivisatos told federal officials. He said the researcher was disciplined, and water valves were retrofitted to be more noticeable to staff.

Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @NanetteAsimov

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