An animal research watchdog group that criticized Lehigh University for its treatment of two hamsters has asked the university president to launch an internal investigation and ban future animal tests.
Michael A. Budkie, executive director of the the Ohio-based group Stop Animal Exploitation Now, sent a letter Tuesday to Lehigh President John D. Simon.
“While this evaluation is being performed, please keep in mind that animals are not simply objects to be utilized however we see fit,” Budkie wrote. “Instead, these are sentient beings whose lives matter to them, belong to them, and should not be ended or altered merely to meet human ends.”
SAEN called out Lehigh last week after its review of federal documents found that Lehigh reported two instances to the federal government in which research hamsters had been mistreated.
In the first incident last March, a hamster was deprived of food or water for 36 hours. In April, researchers euthanized a hamster using carbon dioxide and placed it in a plastic bag in a freezer. The animal was later found outside the bag, Budkie said, after it awakened and tried to escape.
In a July 2015 letter to the National Institutes of Health, a Lehigh administrator disclosed that as a result of its findings, officials had relieved the research facility director of his duties as chairman of the Institutional Animal Care & Use Committee, an internal review board.
Lehigh also barred two people involved from its animal research facility, but SAEN said its responses didn’t go far enough.
SAEN said everyone involved in the incidents should be permanently barred from using animals.
The group, which monitors research facilities nationwide, also asked Lehigh to consider eliminating animal experiments altogether “in favor of investigating cutting edge technology, including 3-dimensional bio-printing, organ-on-a-chip technology, etc.”
Lehigh has not said what the hamsters were used for, and its self-reporting of the incidents does not shed any light on that.
In a statement Wednesday, Lehigh did not address the SAEN letter specifically but said the university is in good standing with both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, the government body that provides guidance on the use of laboratory animals.
“We remain committed to continuous efforts to enhance the efficacy of the university’s animal welfare program and to the ongoing protection of animals used in research,” said Lehigh spokeswoman Lauren Weaver.
Last week, Lehigh noted that it reported the incidents on its own and received assurances from the National Institutes of Health of its responses to the incidents.
“(The Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare) expressed satisfaction with the corrective actions regarding these incidents,” Weaver said then. “Lehigh University remains committed to protecting the safety, health and welfare of all animals.”
SAEN filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleging Lehigh violated regulations regarding personnel, animal handling and veterinary care. It is urging the maximum penalty of $10,000 per infraction, per animal.
In his letter Tuesday, Budkie said SAEN believes “a progressive university such as Lehigh has an obligation not only to act ethically, but also to prepare your students for their own future in the best possible way, by exposing them to cutting-edge technology, which will prepare them for scientific professions on the frontiers of scientific achievement.”