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Charles River charged after deaths of chimps

Complaint alleges animal cruelty at federal facility

The deaths of two chimpanzees named Ashley and Rex, and a close call for a third, Topsy, at a government facility in the New Mexico desert have resulted in criminal charges against Wilmington's Charles River Laboratories, the world's largest supplier of lab animals.

The three misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty against a federal government contractor are highly unusual. But the local law enforcement official who filed them, Otero County District Attorney Scott Key, said he was compelled to act based on what he described as "institutional neglect."

Key and his investigators pieced the case together from leaked medical and autopsy reports supplied by an animal rights group. After authenticating the documents, Key said he became convinced they portrayed a pattern of substandard care for animals by Charles River under a 10-year, $42.8 million contract with the National Institutes of Health at a facility near Alamogordo, N.M.

"Charles River is funded with millions of dollars to take care of these chimps, yet there is inadequate veterinary care," Key said in a telephone interview yesterday. "These situations occurred when gravely ill chimps were left overnight with untrained security personnel, and two of those chimps were dead in the morning."

Ashley was wounded by another chimp. Rex did not wake up from anesthesia after a checkup. Topsy almost died from a wound, also inflicted by another chimp. Court documents filed by Key's investigators also described the electrocution deaths of three other chimpanzees last winter, after repairs caused their perch to come into contact with a 270-volt electric line. The documents said that approximately 21 chimpanzees have died under Charles River care over a two-year period "either by natural causes or neglect by personnel."

The complaint filed Tuesday names the company, chief executive James C. Foster, and Rick Lee, the chief veterinarian in charge of the Alamogordo facility, as defendants. Each count carries a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and one year in jail.

Charles River declined to make Foster or Lee available for interviews. The company denied the allegations in a written statement.

"Charles River was selected by NIH based on its long record of leadership in the humane care and treatment of laboratory animals," the statement said. The company said it has four "world-class" veterinarians and a behavioral scientist on staff.

The company also said that in the cases of alleged chimp neglect that led to criminal charges, "veterinarians provided the immediate and appropriate medical attention necessary to the animals, all of whom had underlying health issues because of the diseases to which they had been exposed."

Chimps Ashley and Rex died at different times in 2002 at the Alamogordo Primate Facility, a lab with about 250 chimpanzees. The facility is maintained by the NIH to care for primates that have been used for government experiments and are no longer needed. They have been exposed to chemicals, infected with deadly viruses like AIDS and hepatitis C, and used in variety of other tests.

The NIH issued a statement yesterday that said it is reviewing the allegations.

The chimpanzee center was once operated by a private contractor called the Coulston Foundation, but NIH did not renew its contracts after a series of controversies, including an episode in 1993 when three chimps died after a space heater raised the temperature in their room to 150 degrees. Charles River Labs took over in June 2001.

A group called In Defense of Animals alerted Key, the district attorney, of the chimpanzees' situation. The animal rights group has spent more than a decade documenting alleged problems with government primate care in Alamogordo.

"Given this history of negligence, one would have thought that the NIH would have made sure the minimal standards of care were met," said Eric Kleiman, the group's research director. "Instead, there is alleged criminal activity there."

Christopher Rowland can be reached at 

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