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Spate of animal research deaths fuels scrutiny of system

SPARKS, Nev. - Workers at a Nevada research lab were checking on a primate room when they came across a ghastly sight: Thirty dead monkeys were essentially cooked alive after someone left the heater on. Two others were near death and had to be euthanized.

The incident happened in 2008. At a lab run by the same company, a monkey died last year after it was sent through a washer while still in its cage. The temperatures were so scalding the monkey never had a chance.

The two cases have contributed to a high number of deaths in recent years, leading to calls for greater oversight and enforcement of the animal research industry.

Critics say fines for violations at animal research labs are so puny they do nothing to deter violations. The lab where the monkeys died in Nevada was fined a mere $14,000 for the two incidents, according to records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The penalties have given them virtually no motivation whatsoever to cease violating the law," said Michael Budkie of the Ohio-based Stop Animal Exploitation Now. "If they are literally killing animals through negligence, something is wrong with the system."

The group asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last month for an investigation into animal deaths at research labs.

Agriculture Department records show there were 97 negligent animal deaths at research facilities nationwide over the last two years, a figure that does not include lab mice and rats.

One of the biggest violators was Charles River Laboratories, where the 33 monkeys died at facilities in Reno in 2008 and Sparks last year.

The Massachusetts-based company is one of the world's largest suppliers of clinical and laboratory research services to pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

Spokeswoman Amy Cianciaruso said survival rates for major diseases are at an all-time high, thanks to the discovery of new drugs made possible in part by the work of scientists at Charles River labs. The company has called the monkey deaths a "terrible and unfortunate tragedy," but said they were isolated cases and corrective actions were taken.