Harvard primate center cited for monkey death

The death in February of a dehydrated cotton-top tamarin monkey at a Harvard Medical School primate research facility has been reviewed by a federal inspector, and found to be a direct violation of animal welfare regulations.

The report of the March 7 inspection by the US Department of Agriculture, recently made available online, is the seventh incident cited by the agency to have directly endangered the safety or welfare of a monkey at the New England Primate Research Center since June 2010. In fiscal year 2011, there were 25 such “direct” non-compliance issues at research facilities nationwide. Harvard had already taken the unusual step of disclosing the primate death—the fourth in less than two years—along with corrective actions such as temporarily halting new research at the center.

The report states that “unusual behavior” was noted by staff on February 26, and a veterinarian diagnosed the animal, an elderly cotton-top tamarin, with dehydration. The animal did not have a water bottle on its cage, and ultimately the animal was euthanized.

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“It was determined that the dehydration was the result of employee error in not providing a water bottle to one of the enclosures .... after the water bottles were removed and then refilled,” the report states. The incident is being investigated by the US Department of Agriculture, along with a number of other incidents that involved death or harm of monkeys at the primate center, and the death of a monkey in February 2011 at a primate facility in Boston. Penalties could include a warning or fines of up to $10,000 per violation of the Animal Welfare Act.

In an interview earlier this year, Harvard Medical School dean Jeffrey Flier said that an individual involved in the monkey’s care had been put on administrative leave, and that many other reforms were being undertaken to address the serious situation at the primate center.

In a tour given in March to a Globe reporter, interim leaders at the center showed specific improvements that were being made in response to the problems, including afternoon checks of water availability.