Vet School 3.26.19

The LSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital is located on Skip Bertman Drive & River Road, Baton Rouge on Tuesday, March 26, 2019.

The LSU School of Veterinary Medicine is under fire for allegedly violating the federal Animal Welfare Act. In a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in February, PETA said the school unlawfully purchased live dogs from a Baton Rouge shelter that is not a USDA-licensed breeder or exhibitor.

As of March 21, the USDA currently has an open investigation into the LSU vet school for potential violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

The USDA enforces the Animal Welfare Act, which includes laws that dictate the treatment of research animals.

PETA accused the vet school of purchasing at least 70 live dogs from Companion Animal Alliance (CAA) in 2018. The complaint also said the vet school failed to maintain acquisition and disposition records for the 70 dogs, another violation of the Animal Welfare Act.

In a statement issued by Communications Manager Ginger Guttner, the vet school said it uses euthanized animals from animal shelters for teaching purposes but does not violate the Animal Welfare Act in doing so.

“The LSU School of Veterinary Medicine obtains euthanized animals from animal shelters; the cadavers are used to train veterinary students, whose life work is dedicated to serving and saving animals,” Guttner said in a statement. “In some cases, live animals are brought to the veterinary school for euthanasia. In all of these cases, the animals were already scheduled for euthanasia.”

Guttner said the vet school has not been notified of investigations by either the USDA or East Baton Rouge DA as of March 20, and denies PETA’s allegations.

LSU Media Relations Director Ernie Ballard said the process used by the LSU Vet School to obtain animals is reviewed annually by the University’s institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. The University is routinely found to be compliant during regular, unannounced inspections by animal care experts, Ballard said.

“Obtaining animals from animal shelters for use in teaching does not violate the Federal Animal Welfare Act,” Ballard said.

PETA began to investigate the vet school’s animal acquisition methods after receiving a complaint from former CAA Executive Director Desiree Bender. Shortly after Bender began working at CAA in May, she said she was asked to sign an invoice to transfer live dogs to the vet school for a lethal anatomy class.

Bender refused to sign the invoice, which led to disputes involving vet school professors who used the euthanized animals for lethal anatomy courses. After attempting to bar the transfer of dogs to the vet school in August, she received a call from Veterinary Clinical Sciences assistant professor Wendy Wolfson, who also serves on CAA’s board of directors.

Bender said Wolfson attempted to convince her to continue to meet the vet school’s needs, but Bender refused.

“I don’t run a shelter for the LSU vet school,” Bender said. “I learned what’s involved in this, and it’s not a process done with integrity and compassion. It’s not part of our mission, and it can’t be done.”

Bender did as much as she could to stop the practice of transferring animals to the vet school, but she said many decisions were made without her knowledge. Much of the email correspondence that scheduled the transferring of animals took place between Comparative Biomedical Sciences Research staff member Allison Vestal-Laborde and CAA Director of Shelter Operations Amanda Pumilia.

Vestal-Laborde sent an email request for “at least 15 cat bodies from which we would need the heads from” in October. Bender responded and said CAA would not be able to meet that demand, and she was terminated shortly after. Bender then filed a complaint with PETA after her termination.

To corroborate Bender’s claims, PETA requested “acquisition records for animals obtained from shelters and correspondence between LSU and CAA.” LSU sent 226 pages of responsive material to meet this request.

The records included email correspondence between Vestal-Laborde and Pumilia that confirm LSU purchased live and dead animals from CAA for lethal anatomy courses in 2018.

Despite this correspondence, PETA said they did not receive acquisition or disposition records for the 70 live dogs that were purchased from CAA, which the University is required by law to maintain. However, Guttner said the vet school kept records of the dogs.

“We do keep records on everything and we provided records to PETA, so I’m not entirely sure what the basis of that charge is,” Guttner said. “We definitely have records and provided PETA with documents because of their request.”

In January, PETA requested these records and identified the 70 dogs by their identification numbers provided by Bender. However, the University said it did not have the records.

PETA’s complaint said the University’s purchase of the 70 dogs from a non-licensed shelter and the failure to keep the necessary records for the dogs gives rise to at least 140 violations. PETA’s Laboratory Investigations Department research associate Jeremy Beckham, who filed the complaint, said LSU’s lack of records suggests a desire to avoid a paper trail of the purchases.

“It’s my suspicion that Louisiana State University and Companion Animal Alliance thought no one would ever know about this practice,” Beckham said. “The reality is if this whistleblower hadn’t contacted us, no one would know. The fact that LSU didn’t keep acquisition or disposition records for these animals is highly unusual.”

In PETA’s complaint, Beckham said he learned from Bender that cadavers were purchased from CAA for $20 each, and live dogs were purchased for $40 each. Beckham said purchasing live dogs from commercial sources can cost up to $700-$800 per dog.

According to CAA, the live dogs the University purchased were on a euthanasia list prior to the University requesting a certain number of dogs for a specific date. However, the complaint suggested CAA would sometimes place dogs on the euthanasia list solely to meet the demands. Bender said to her knowledge, CAA met all the vet school’s demands, whether the shelter was at capacity.

Guttner said the dogs that were transferred to the vet school were already on a euthanasia list, but maintained that the decision to euthanize, for whatever reason, fell on CAA.

“In all cases, the shelter determines which animals will be euthanized and why,” Guttner said. “That totally falls on them.”

The complaint said the email correspondence also suggested the vet school planned on euthanizing the newly purchased dogs from CAA immediately upon arrival for use in lethal anatomy courses and possibly other experimental purposes.

If this information can be substantiated, the vet school would also be in violation of an Animal Welfare Act clause that requires research facilities that acquire animals from a non-USDA licensed source to hold the animals for at least five days.

PETA also filed a companion complaint with the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office in February. This complaint alleged the University committed criminal violations of Louisiana’s Public Records Law by failing to provide at least one email that fell under the scope of the records request. PETA received these emails from Bender.

One of the emails the University failed to provide PETA was the email in which Bender responded to Vestal-Laborde’s request for 15 cats. In the email, Bender said CAA didn’t “have the cats for this type of request.” Because the University provided other emails sent to Vestal-Laborde’s email account and not this one, Beckham believes the University intentionally did not provide the email.

“My working theory is LSU didn’t want to provide that, understanding that we could reach out and contact that person to get more information,” Beckham said. “They wanted to provide only part of the picture that shows a willing, cooperative shelter partner when that’s not the whole story.”

The DA complaint also alleged faculty members at the University possibly worked to conceal evidence of their illegal activity. All email correspondence between CAA employees and Vestal-Laborde was sent to Vestal-Laborde’s personal email instead of her official LSU email address.

“LSU is a public university and a public agency,” Beckhma said. “When you see public agencies switch to using a private email, it’s often to evade recordkeeping and transparency requirements. If you put all these pieces together, it’s a little troubling.”

PETA also asked that the DA investigate CAA listing some of the animals purchased by the vet school for its lethal anatomy courses as “adopted.” Beckham said the shelter’s false representation was deeply wrong and may have inaccurately provided a false appearance of the shelter to the public.

In February, Beckham sent a letter to CAA Board Chair Christel Slaughter after hearing CAA stated it would no longer transfer live animals to the University. Beckham commended them on ending the practice, but urged them to implement policies prohibiting timing euthanasia to meet the University’s demands. As of March 21, Beckham had not received a response.

Slaughter said CAA never sold live dogs to the vet school. Instead, they transferred live animals to the vet school and were reimbursed for expenses.

The CAA Board of Directors unanimously voted on Oct. 11, days before Bender’s termination, to stop transferring live animals to the vet school. Slaughter said CAA was contacted by the USDA on Oct. 29, who informed the shelter they needed a Class B license, the same license they would need to sell live animals to the vet school.

After CAA lead veterinarian Sarah Hicks responded to the USDA seeking further clarification, the USDA sent a letter in November stating that because CAA transfers animals to other rescue groups that adopt those animals out for a fee, the shelter should apply for the Class B license.

CAA submitted its application for the license in December. PETA received a leaked copy of its application in February and began drafting a letter to the USDA urging them to deny the application. PETA discussed this with news reporters on Feb. 28, and about a week later CAA withdrew its application for the license.

According to a statement on CAA’s website, the shelter withdrew the application after being informed by “knowledgeable transport partners and other national animal welfare experts” that they did not need a Class B license because CAA is the public animal shelter for East Baton Rouge Parish.

Beckham questioned the authenticity of the letter Slaughter said the shelter received from the USDA. He said he believes CAA submitting an application for a Class B license two months after claiming to stop transferring live animals to the vet school is an admission of guilt.

“I think it’s way too coincidental that right as we were about to go to the USDA with this, they withdrew their application,” Beckham said. “Their statement on their website about why they supposedly withdrew their application is just more lies. There’s been this stunning inability for any accountability or recognition of wrongdoing.”

On the application, CAA listed the “estimate total number of animals to be sold in the next business year” as 85 and the “estimate gross dollar amount derived from regulated activities” as $3500, meaning each animal sold would generate roughly $41.

Beckham said he found this information, 85 animals sold at approximately $41 each, to be extremely similar to the transactions that took place between CAA and the vet school in 2018. That year, CAA sold at least 70 dogs to the vet school at $40 each.

Beckham heard from the East Baton Rouge DA in February, who asked him to re-submit the complaint to the East Baton Rouge Police Department. The DA requested that EBRPD conduct an initial investigation and refer information back to the DA office.

Beckham said he believes there’s a low likelihood that the police will investigate, so PETA has stopped pursuing action on that complaint. PETA maintains that LSU did violate open records law, however.

Beckham also heard from the USDA in February, who said they would conduct a 30-60 day investigation.

On March 20, two PETA protesters held a demonstration at the LSU Board of Supervisors meeting to protest the vet school’s purchase of live dogs from CAA as well as biological sciences assistant professor Christine Lattin’s use of live birds in experiments.

The protesters stood at the back of the meeting carrying signs with various messages, including “HELLSU for dogs and birds” and “LSU vet school: stop using shelter dogs.”

Bender said it’s critical that the University be held accountable for these alleged violations and that CAA end the practice of meeting the University’s demands.

“It’s imperative that these organizations be transparent on providing every bit of information, so they don’t lose public trust,” Bender said. “It’s not OK anymore for LSU to be so far behind.

It’s not OK to have a relationship with a shelter agency that’s so dependent on making them happy.”

On April 2, CAA received word from the USDA stating CAA does not require a Class B license "based upon further review of information provided by [CAA] concerning [CAA's] business model and activities." 

Slaughter said the USDA's statement took into account that CAA has a Cooperative Endeavor Agreement with the City-Parish, information CAA gave to the USDA when it withdrew its application for a Class B dealer license in March. Slaughter said the USDA's response is an acknowledgement of the fact that CAA does not need a Class B license to transfer dogs to the vet school. 

Editor's note: This story was updated to include information from a letter sent by the USDA to CAA on April 5. 

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