Biomedical researchers rely on chinchillas–docile South American rodents with ears strikingly similar to those of humans—for studies of ear infections and hearing loss. But the two main U.S. chinchilla suppliers to research labs have for years violated the U.S. Animal Welfare Act, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which enforces that law. Until the pandemic descended, the two suppliers sent hundreds of animals to U.S. labs.
Those suppliers failed to identify and treat sick and injured animals, kept them in filthy barns and excrement-laden enclosures, and failed to clear dead animals, according to USDA inspection reports recently restored to full public view. One supplier, Moulton Chinchilla Ranch (MCR) in Chatfield, Minnesota, has a 9-year record of violations and was to have faced an agency judge in April at a hearing; that hearing was postponed because of the pandemic.
MCR is the only chinchilla provider listed in the Buyers Guide produced by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS). “How is this business allowed to continue to operate given the issues that have been repeatedly identified?” asks Cathy Liss, president of the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), which advocates for lab animals.
AALAS President Tracy Parker says its Buyers Guide lists only USDA-licensed research animal suppliers, but that the organization does not check compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. That’s up to researchers and institutions, she says. “It’s very troubling to me that it looks like research facilities that are continuing to utilize chinchillas haven’t pressured [MCR] to improve. … I would not allow animals from this facility into my program.”
In a 2019 court filing, MCR proprietor Dan Moulton denied a long list of violations documented in a formal complaint USDA filed in November 2018. He says he complied with the law, doing “very well for many years,” until his USDA inspectors changed about 5 years ago. “The Animal Welfare Act is written in such a way that it can be broadly interpreted for purposes of citation,” Moulton told Science.
Long-tailed chinchillas (Chinchilla lanigera) are squirrel-size rodents native to the Andes. In 2019, U.S. biomedical researchers used 1250 of the animals, down by about one-third from the numbers used in 2014, according to USDA data curated by AWI. MCR and the other offending facility, Ryerson Chinchilla Ranch (RCR) in Plymouth, Ohio, are the suppliers most often cited in recent papers in journals including Cell and Science Translational Medicine.
USDA’s complaint against MCR documented 85 animals that failed to receive veterinary care between September 2014 and May 2017. It described an excrement-ridden, understaffed barn housing lethargic animals with weeping, open wounds; putrid abscesses; and, most commonly, infected eyes swollen or crusted closed. In seven of eight inspections since USDA filed the complaint in November 2018, the most recent in March, the agency found continuing violations, including crusted eyes and tight collars overlying open sores.
Filing a complaint is the most serious enforcement action USDA can take. Complaints can lead to a hearing at which a facility’s license may be suspended or revoked. USDA says because of the pandemic, a new date has not been set for the postponed April hearing.
Moulton, a lawyer, told Science that he, his wife, and one 25-hour-per-week worker maintain 546 animals in a 771-square-meter barn. He adds that he supplies only healthy animals to researchers. “If an animal were lethargic, you don’t send them. If the eyes are not bright, you don’t send them. If the animals have got loose stool, you don’t send them.”
Sanford Feldman, director of comparative medicine at the University of Virginia, has consulted with Moulton in recent years as Moulton tried to rid his facility of endemic Streptococcus zooepidemicus, a pathogen that causes conjunctivitis, abscesses, and other problems. Feldman reviewed MCR’s recent USDA inspection reports. “Broken wire cages with sharp edges, that’s a no-no. Collars that had cut into the skin—you are supposed to inspect them every day,” Feldman says.
Still, Feldman says, “Were the animals suffering terribly? No. … Fundamentally the guy wants to do right by the animals. He still hasn’t come to the conclusion that right is going mean a big investment.”
USDA has not filed a formal complaint against RCR, the other facility often used by researchers. But a USDA inspector cited RCR in 2017 for failing to disclose the existence of 1000 chinchillas and for using an unspecified “painful” and “unacceptable” method of euthanasia. In February and March, USDA inspectors reported RCR animals with eyes swollen or crusted shut, a cold and rigid dead chinchilla, a female animal that received no veterinary care after she was “beaten up” by a male, and a dust- and hair-clogged facility reeking of ammonia that left the inspectors with irritated eyes and throats. The proprietor, Jan Ryerson, could not be located for comment.
AALAS will await the outcome of the USDA legal proceedings before taking any action to remove MCR from its Buyers Guide, Parker says. The Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare at the National Institutes of Health, which funds much current chinchilla research, notes that neither individual NIH-funded researchers nor their institutions are legally responsible for operations at vendors, which is a USDA responsibility. Most authors of chinchilla papers and their institutions did not respond to Science’s queries about their suppliers.
However, the University of Oklahoma reports it dropped MCR as a supplier in 2018. “[MCR] animals were not of the quality we needed for our research,” says Ronald Banks, the university’s director of comparative medicine.
And Vera Gorbunova, a geneticist at the University of Rochester, read the USDA complaint and examined photos taken at MCR in 2017 by USDA inspectors and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Animal Folks. Gorbunova purchased MCR chinchillas several years ago for a study, published in Cell last year, that identified a gene associated with longer life spans in rodents. She called the documents “disturbing. … There is no excuse for such preventable injuries as sores under tight-fitting collars. … I hope an alternative vendor with higher standards would be available for the research community.”
After a 3-year hiatus, researchers and others can now monitor USDA inspection reports at the agency’s website. In February, the agency restored full public access to those reports.
“There is a crying need for preventing taxpayer money from going to places with these [kinds of] records,” says Eric Kleiman, an AWI researcher. “It’s ultimately the researcher’s responsibility. They are the ones working with the animals.”