FAIRBANKS — The U.S. Department of Agriculture accused the University of Alaska Fairbanks of possible Animal Welfare Act violations in the starvation deaths of 12 musk oxen at the school’s large-animal research station.
USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said Wednesday that an administrative judge will decide whether the university could face fines that an animal-rights group hopes total $10,000 per animal.
The university failed to provide adequate veterinary care, identify that the musk oxen were losing weight or enlist veterinary treatment for the animals, the agency’s complaint says. It says the animals died or were euthanized between Aug. 29, 2010, and Feb. 16, 2011.
The musk oxen deaths represented the biggest die-off of the school’s herd since it was established more than 30 years ago.
“The gravity of the respondent’s violations is great,” states the complaint, which was filed in late March.
The university is working on a response, spokeswoman Marmian Grimes said. The deadline to respond is May 12.
Grimes said major changes have been implemented in the wake of the deaths. The die-off was blamed on a deficiency of trace minerals like copper and cobalt, with the animals looking emaciated even though they had access to hay, she said. Changes were made in dietary supplementation, the animal care structure and the way health concerns are reported, Grimes said.
The musk oxen herd is healthy now, she said.
In a 2011 inspection report preceding the complaint, the USDA said research staff members were told not to contact the attending veterinarian about the health problems for fear of reprisal from the university’s Office of Research Integrity, with which the veterinarian was also involved.
The complaint follows a request by the animal rights group Stop Animal Exploitation Now to investigate the school.
Michael Budkie, the group’s executive director, said it was thrilled by the USDA’s action.
“We hope that the University of Alaska Fairbanks receives the maximum allowable penalty under the law for starving a dozen musk oxen,” he said. “What a horrible way to die.”
Espinosa said it will be up to an administrative law judge to determine what penalties, if any, are warranted. Each violation carries a maximum fine of $10,000.
The complaint also said a university worker allowed a student to enter a moose enclosure alone in 2010, and the student got kicked in the head by the animal. That indicated the university failed to ensure animal care personnel were qualified to perform duties, the agency said.
Grimes said the oxen that died were not part of a research project at the time. But animals at the university are used to study such areas as behavior, metabolism, energy use and reproduction, Grimes said.
“The incident was serious several years ago, and it’s still very serious now,” she said of the deaths.