By Bob Considine/The Star-Ledger
PRINCETON — Princeton University is receiving failing grades from a medical research group for its treatment of animals used by the school for scientific study.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit group that promotes animal rights and vegan diets, ranks Princeton as second worst among the eight Ivy League schools in adhering to minimal standards of the Animal Welfare Act.
One of the school’s greatest offenses, the group says, is "a pattern of deliberate, excessive water restriction in primates" beyond the guidelines set in Animal Welfare Act — some of which resulted in a warning from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, earlier this year.
"In this study, Princeton is an example of how much disregard there is for the Animal Welfare Act," said John Pippin, a cardiologist, director of academic affairs for the research group and author of the study, scheduled to be released Wednesday morning. "It’s also an example of and how little its university regulatory body really cares about saying to its own researchers, ‘You know, you really can’t do this.’"
The study, based on animal facility inspection reports by APHIS from January 2008 to July 2011, applied a score relative to violations, repeat violations and National Institutes of Health grant money.
Princeton and Yale universities tied for second-worst with a score of 49, a distance from the worst-ranked school, the University of Pennsylvania, which received a score of 120. Harvard (48), Cornell (38) and Brown (35) and Dartmouth (33) finished with lower scores — meaning higher grades — than Princeton. Columbia University (25) yielded the best results.
Princeton spokesman Martin Mbugua, said the university’s research methods meet approved protocols.
"It’s unfortunate that some groups make efforts to influence the public’s understanding about beneficial research by taking the approach of this report," he said.
Mbugua said all research involving animals is reviewed and approved by Princeton’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, including the use of water scheduling as a research protocol.
In its report, the medical research group said "non-human primates were routinely forced to go more than 24 hours without water." But Mbugua said the report is misleading in its wording.
During an APHIS inspection in late January, water was found to have been removed from two cages and not returned until over 24 hours later. Mbugua said this was an isolated incident caused by an "unanticipated delay" due to a miscommunication. Measures were put in place to avoid such miscommunication again, he said.
In an inspection report, the USDA also admonished the school for not providing proper veterinary care for a pregnant marmoset that was in distress in March. The agency said the attending veterinarian was not informed of the marmoset’s condition.
In response, Mbugua said "to have a veterinarian attend the birth is not common and is not a requirement," as marmosets sometimes deliver in the middle of the night, just as they do in the wild. But he also said a formal process has been implemented so an attending veterinarian is always notified of impending births.
APHIS sent the school an official warning of Violation of Federal Regulations in May, which could have resulted in fines. Mbugua said in an inspection on June 7, APHIS concluded the school had "taken corrective actions and all of the non-compliant items that were identified have either been corrected or corrective actions are in progress."
Pippin, however, said warnings of fines are rare in APHIS correspondences with animal study programs at universities and the response to their criticism are "not just a sign of disrespect, but of arrogance."
Star-Ledger staff writer Kelly Heyboer contributed to this report.