U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors were giving University of Utah animal-research labs a thumbs up at the very time an "undercover" animal-rights activist claims she was documenting miserable conditions and illegal treatment of animals inside two U. facilities.
U. officials on Tuesday released annual inspection reports dating back to 2005 in response to allegations of systemic abuse leveled by the People for the Treatment of Animals (PETA). All the inspection reports say the same thing: "No noncompliances identified."
"The University's labs are inspected frequently without warning or advance notice by state and national agencies, and our labs have always been in full compliance with all government guidelines for animal care," U. administrators said in a prepared statement.
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), is charged with ensuring compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, which spells out care standards for dogs, monkeys cats, pigs and other animals used in laboratory experiments.
But that agency is "riddled with problems" and is ill-equipped to do "a decent job," said PETA's Kathy Guillermo Wednesday at a Salt Lake City press event where she displayed video her agent shot with hidden cameras.
"There are 125 USDA inspectors and they're responsible for inspecting every one of the 1,100 laboratories across America, as well as every zoo, every circus, every animal breeder," said Guillermo, who heads Virginia-based PETA's 10-staff laboratory investigations unit. "When an inspector comes once a year, maybe twice, it's usually an announced visit. They don't have time to look at anything more than a sampling of paperwork. They only see the animals that are there that day. Our investigator was there for eight months."
PETA used their investigator's log entries, video and photos to lodge formal complaints against U. researchers and animal-care staff Wednesday with USDA and the National Institutes of Health, which provides most of the U.'s research grants. The group is also pursuing a criminal complaint with the Humane Society of Utah.
"To subject animals to invasive experiments is bad enough, but allowing them to languish in pain and misery without veterinary care is despicable," Guillermo said. "The University of Utah has caused all sorts of animals to suffer needlessly."
U. officials said they would evaluate PETA's claims.
"Allegations of misconduct are always taken seriously by the University, even when such charges are made by an individual who misrepresented herself in order to gain employment within the University's labs," their statement said.
The statement also highlighted the social and medical value of research conducted on campus, which is shedding new light on the process of aging and neurodegenerative disorders.
"Animal research is conducted only when the project has a valuable scientific purpose and is aimed at combating disease and relieving human suffering," the statement said.
But PETA also filed government records requests Wednesday with the U., seeking the protocols used in the experiments in which they allege violations.
"The university operates under a veil of secrecy and the only way we find out what's happening with the animals is to take a camera inside," she said. "What the university needs to do is stop putting up its walls and gathering its wagons and deal with what are very serious problems in its facilities."
PETA officials say some of the alleged mistreatment broke Utah's animal cruelty laws. A Humane Society official confirmed its investigator would look into the matter, with the possibility of referring it to prosecutors.
PETA officials declined to make their agent, identified only as LZ, available to reporters or divulge her identity.
"The investigator may very well do more undercover investigations and she doesn't come forward because she is protecting her identity and her privacy," Guillermo said. "She will be available to be interviewed by any federal agent who needs to talk to her."
U. officials have a good idea of LZ's identity, but said they were not comfortable releasing her name.
Guillermo also demanded that the U. stop taking shelter animals for use in its laboratories. Only Utah and Minnesota require that government-run shelters hand animals over for experimental research upon request, while 17 states outlaw the practice.
Three shelters -- Davis County Animal Shelter in Fruit Heights, North Utah Valley Animal Shelter in Lindon, and Tooele City Animal Shelter -- have supplied dogs and cats to the university under Utah's "pound seizure" law in recent months, records show. Initially, PETA had mistakenly said Tooele County Animal Shelter was a pound-seizure supplier. Animal transfer receipts instead show at least 10 dogs and two cats were sold to the U. by the Tooele city shelter between January and March.
Reporter Tony Semerad contributed to this report.