Philip Joris needed chinchillas. The Belgium-based hearing researcher turned to South American rodents six years ago, excited to study their hearing abilities, so similar to ours.
But he was surprised to find that no one in Europe seemed to keep chinchillas for laboratories; they were only bred for the pet trade, and these animals, which can be inbred and have problematic genetic mutations, are not ideal for auditory research.
He quickly expanded his research, asking his European and American colleagues for help, and they recommended Moulton Chinchilla Ranch, a facility in rural Minnesota that appears to be the only place raising animals for research. Daniel Moulton, the owner, was very responsive, says Joris. “He was very good at our interactions, very concerned about animals – and crossing an ocean is no mean feat.”
Moulton sent three groups of chinchillas to Joris’ office at Kuleuven University, Leuven, in 2015 and 2016 – 30 animals in total – and none showed any adverse effects from the trip or any underlying conditions, he said. “They all arrived in very good health.
But what Joris didn’t know, he said, was that during the time he communicated with Moulton, the establishment had been cited on several occasions for animal welfare violations. Between 2013 and 2018, Moulton Chinchilla Ranch, which now has around 750 chinchillas, racked up more than 100 violations of the Animal Welfare Act, a U.S. law that protects animals used in research exhibited in places like zoos and breeding centers like Moulton.
There are 85 USDA approved chinchilla dealers in the United States, but no others are actively breeding animals for research.
In a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) administrative hearing that ended on October 8, Judge Jill Clifton revoked Moulton’s license to breed chinchillas and fined 18,000 $ in an oral decision. She said the welfare violations at Moulton Chinchilla Ranch were part of a general pattern of chronic problems related to animal health, hygiene and safety.
“You are not suitable for a license,” she said, adding that her decision permanently barred Moulton from reapplying for a breeding license under the Protection Act. animals. “I don’t know why you couldn’t understand the requirements of the animal welfare law,” she said. “I think it’s more out of disinterest than anything else.”
The hearing lasted 18 days and was the first animal welfare case involving research animals to go to a judge in six years, according to Eric Kleiman, a researcher at the non-profit Animal Welfare Institute. (In Minnesota, local prosecutors decided in August not to prosecute Moulton for potential violations of state animal welfare law, in part, he said, due to the federal hearing. In progress.)
Clifton said that every alleged violation by the USDA – more than a hundred – is now proven. She said her decision could be appealed within the next 30 days.
Moulton testified at the hearing that he made efforts to improve his facility and obtain more consistent veterinary care, among other measures.
“Like much of what the USDA does,” Kleiman says, the judge’s suspension now, years after the violations started, is “too little, too late.”
If Moulton is allowed to continue operating, “animal welfare law would make no sense,” says Russ Mead, professor of animal law at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.
Months before Joris placed his first order, Brenton Cox, an inspector with the US Department of Agriculture, walked through the Moulton facility. He said during the hearing that he had “nightmares” about one of the dead animals he saw and that the facility had become his training tool for “how to handle the worst facilities. cases “.
During an inspection in July 2014, Cox discovered a dead newborn chinchilla that had fallen through its cage and was buried in the droppings of other animals. Two months later, he noted in an inspection report that the chinchillas’ drinking water was green. He reported that the sharp nails and rusty wires were turned inward towards the animals. Other inspectors found that the animals’ eyes were covered with scabs and veterinary care was inconsistent. The health issues reported by inspectors had not been addressed months later.
Cox also testified that Moulton, who had at least two other unrelated businesses, was likely too stretched out to provide adequate care for his chinchillas. Moulton looked after his hundreds of chinchillas largely on his own, rarely calling for outside help. “He didn’t really have time or enough Mr. Moultons to go around,” Cox said.
What closure means for hearing research
The loss of Moulton Chinchilla Ranch as a lab supplier could accelerate the continuing decline in the use of chinchillas for hearing research.
Chinchillas have been used for human hearing research because they hear better at lower frequencies than other rodents, and their large ears and anatomy are easy to examine.
But according to Sanford Feldman, director of comparative medicine at the University of Virginia, researchers have increasingly turned to animals such as zebrafish and mice, which mature faster. They are also purposely bred with genetic mutations that cause disease in humans, so researchers can acquire highly specialized animals for their studies. In the past four years, only 36 hearing studies based on chinchillas have been listed in PubMed, a medical journal research tool, compared to more than a thousand with mice.
Without a supply of chinchillas from the Moulton facility, researchers will likely turn to the guinea pigs, said Joris, who was not involved in the hearing.
It would “be unfair and in direct conflict with the purpose and intent of the Animal Welfare Act” to allow Moulton to continue operating despite these violations just to help the research community with their supply, testified Aaron Rhyner, who oversees the USDA. Animal care unit.
Hearing studies, like most animal research, would often not be approved in humans: in a recent study on chinchillas funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, for example, chinchillas were exposed to several explosions to study their progressive hearing loss.
“One can easily imagine the pain and fear that chinchillas experience in a lab,” says Kristie Sullivan, vice president of research policy at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization that opposes animal research. Human ear models using human cells and tissues could instead “provide an understanding of aspects of ear development and pathology which are unique to humans and cannot be obtained from animal studies” , she says.
During the USDA hearing, Feldman, who called his relationship with Moulton friendship rather than professional – despite having examined one of Moulton’s dead chinchillas – said the eye problem Closed chinchillas likely stemmed from a type of infection that researchers learned more about recently that is difficult to treat. Pathogens live on surfaces for months and can easily travel great distances in the air, he said, adding that to eradicate this threat Moulton would have had to euthanize all of his animals, fumigate the facility and resupply it. .
Even so, Feldman said, some of the issues inspectors found at Moulton Chinchilla Ranch, such as the sharp edges exposed in the cages and holes large enough for a newborn to fall into, couldn’t be ignored. “This is a recipe for an animal injury,” he said.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between the National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more stories about Wildlife Watch here, and learn more about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]