RENO, Nev. (AP) -- An animal rights group is urging federal inspectors to fine Charles River Laboratories nearly $200,000 after the firm reported that four more monkeys and other research animals died in its care at its testing labs in Nevada and elsewhere.
Leaders of the Stop Animal Exploitation Now say the most recent deaths demonstrate a continuing trend of negligence that has resulted in deaths of research animals. The group stepped up its scrutiny of the labs after 2008 when a heating malfunction killed 32 monkeys in Sparks and another was boiled alive a year later when it was mistakenly left in a cage that went through a washer at the Reno lab.
The giant laboratory researcher paid a total of $14,500 in fines for the two incidents, and activists say the size of those penalties is the reason the labs don't take animal testing laws seriously. They are calling for $180,000 in fines this time.
Dave Sacks, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the agency takes the complaints seriously and will take a close look at the laboratories.
"We will assess our findings and take any and all appropriate actions once we've had an opportunity to fully look into things," he said. "Ensuring the welfare of the animals we regulate is at the heart of everything we do."
Charles River spokeswoman Amy Cianiaruso defended the company's work but did not respond directly to the critics' call for significant fines. The company also notes that animal research has paved the way for significant medical discoveries that people benefit from every day.
"Charles River has a deep commitment to animal welfare and we make every effort to exceed national standards for the care of the animal models under our stewardship," she said in an email to The Associated Press.
The newly disclosed deaths are in reports Charles River provided itself to the USDA. Obtained by the activists through requests under the Freedom of Information Act, they document unintended deaths resulting from a scenario when a tube used to force a substance into an animal's stomach instead gets into the lungs, almost always a fatal mistake.
The reports list a total of nine deaths over three years: one rabbit, one dog, two primates in 2009; one rabbit in 2010; two rabbits and two primates in 2011.
Michael Budkie, executive director of the Ohio-based SAEN, said in a letter to USDA officials last month that the documentation makes it clear staff at Charles River labs have "engaged in a multi-year pattern of negligence and incompetence."
The organization also filed complaints with USDA against a Merck Sharp & Dohme lab in New Jersey, where two primates had to be euthanized under similar circumstances to the Charles River deaths last year; and against Wuxi Apptec in St. Paul, Minn., where three rabbits died in similar fashion in 2011.
Officials for Merck defended the work at their labs but not did respond directly to the allegations of violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Officials for Wuxi Apptec did not immediately respond to telephone calls or an email seeking comment.
"Merck takes animal research very seriously and is dedicated to ethical treatment of all animals used in development of medicines/vaccines," Merck said in a statement.
Charles River is one of the world's largest suppliers of clinical and laboratory research services to pharmaceutical and biotech companies. The company is headquartered in Wilmington, Mass., and has labs in more than a dozen other states as well as Nevada. The documents redact the location of specific labs, but Budkie said only two labs use monkeys and the bulk of those are at Reno.
Charles River closed its lab in Sparks a year after 32 long-tail macaques were killed. Among other things, its researchers at the Reno lab continue to conduct tests on monkeys and other animals in pursuit of new flu vaccines and even a cure for cancer.
"The survival rates for major diseases are at an all-time high thanks to the discovery of new drugs," Cianciaruso said. "Charles River's work is an essential component of the research that has led to these discoveries and has played a vital role in medical advances for humans as well as animals."