At least 15 grizzly bears have died in the past six years at a Washington State University research facility, according to a trove of recently released public records.
Five were put down for experiments that required body-tissue samples. Four were euthanized as cubs to control the number of bears in captivity. At least two died because of human error, and the deaths of other animals have raised questions about WSU’s treatment of research animals.
An animal rights group this week called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fine the university for infractions related to animal treatment, citing bear deaths and the overdosing of three bighorn sheep.
“We think that the records indicate a lack of veterinary care for the bears and the other animals,” said Michael Budkie, the director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, a Cincinnati-based group that routinely files complaints against universities and animal research facilities. “We think that’s worthy of a significant federal investigation.”
The university announced in March that it was taking steps to address problems at the Bear Research, Education and Conservation Center, which conducts a wide range of studies aimed at protecting wild bears. An investigation by WSU administrators called attention to a 2010 incident in which two bear cubs had to be euthanized after nearly starving to death when they failed to go into hibernation.
But the university did not mention the death of Mica, an 11-year-old female grizzly found dead one morning in June 2014. A necropsy report said she had a tear in her uterus that spilled infectious fluid into her abdominal cavity.
In an effort to control the number of bears in captivity, Mica had been given a contraceptive called megestrol acetate, which is used extensively in veterinary medicine. The doctor who dissected Mica wrote that the drug is “an established risk factor” for uterine infections in dogs and “may be the primary inciting factor in this bear.”
Regardless, records show all of the center’s female bears were on a megestrol regimen a year later.
Nina Woodford, the interim director of WSU’s Office of the Campus Veterinarian, said as soon as researchers noticed Mica’s infection, they reduced her dosage of megestrol and supplemented it with another form of birth control. Bears now are given megestrol for shorter periods of time, and there haven’t been additional complications, she said.
“Please note,” Woodford said, “there are no standardized, FDA-approved medications for bears so veterinarians have to use medications approved for similar species (such as) dogs.”
Budkie, the animal rights activist, said Mica’s death never should have happened.
“The failure to monitor that bear, and allow it to decline to the point where its uterus was not only infected but ruptured, shows real negligence on the part of WSU’s researchers,” said Budkie, who briefly studied animal health technology at the University of Cincinnati.
Budkie’s group published a letter Wednesday asking the federal government to fine the university $10,000 for each infraction cited in an April 26 inspection report by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
That report highlighted an incident last March in which three bighorn sheep were given a steroid at 50 times the approved dosage for three consecutive days.
Charlie Powell, a spokesman for WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said the sheep were part of a study seeking a vaccine for pneumonia, which has ravaged wild bighorn sheep herds in Idaho, Washington and other Western states for decades.
An approved dose of dexamethasone was given to the animals to suppress their immune systems in the hope it would give an experimental vaccine a chance to work. When it did not, a graduate student acting alone gave the animals the much larger dose of the drug. That also failed to work, and the sheep developed pneumonia. They were later euthanized.
The graduate student has since left the university, and the professor who oversaw him retired, Powell said. The incident would be used to teach graduate students about the importance of following university protocols, he said.
“This is an uncommon error,” he said. “But it’s an opportunity for us to just condition graduate students that if you’ve seen it approved elsewhere, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s approved here.”
The bear cubs that died in January 2010 were less than a year old. Their names were Chester and Remi. They were placed in cages called culvert traps and expected to hibernate through the winter, without their mother to nuzzle up against.
Researchers videotaped the bears at all times, but it’s not clear how closely they reviewed those tapes, or how frequently they checked on the bears in person. By the time they noticed Chester and Remi weren’t hibernating, the report said, “their health had deteriorated so severely that both bears had to be euthanized.”
The bears were removed from the cages, treated for 24 hours and then euthanized. Administrators characterized the incident as a learning opportunity: “The experience revealed that bears need to learn how to hibernate,” they wrote in the report.
Four years later, researchers found a 3-year-old bear named Sam dead in a culvert trap where he had been hibernating. A necropsy report said he died of gastric ulcers and a mass on his kidney.
“It’s terrible and it’s tragic when we have something like that happen,” said Kim Kidwell, acting dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. “But that’s something we’ve addressed, and we have corrected our protocols to avoid problems in the future.”
Her department and the campus veterinarian’s office have been working closely with the bear center to ensure it meets new requirements, Kidwell said. They recently banned the use of culvert traps and will now put hibernating bears in more spacious dark rooms.
The bear center sits on the eastern edge of the Pullman campus. It was built in 1964 and originally used for research on monkeys, cats and rats. The first bears were brought there in 1986.
Today, the facility includes six bear dens and a 2.2-acre yard where bears are allowed to roam and play each day. Research conducted there covers a range of disciplines, including sleep, behavior, nutrition and physiology. Some studies have analyzed the bears’ ability to maintain muscle mass while hibernating; others examined the effects of urban encroachment on their natural habitat.
With a maximum capacity of 13 adult bears, the facility must euthanize additional bears that are born on-site or acquired from zoos or wildlife refuges. State laws restrict the facility from sending extra bears elsewhere or releasing them into the wild, the university has said.
Kidwell said the center’s limitations add urgency to fundraising efforts for an updated $20 million facility. Researchers want more space for more bears, including polar bears, as well as more high-tech research tools.
“If we’re going to do hibernation research, we need to do it in a facility that’s custom-designed for it,” Kidwell said.