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Report: Research monkeys escaped several times

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Federal inspectors reported that monkeys used in research projects at Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute escaped from their cages at least six times over the past year.

The monkeys, nearly all rhesus macaques, were all recaptured without injury to the animals or staff, often by using food to luring them into enclosures, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said in inspection reports.

The reports do not indicate that any of the monkeys were able to get outdoors or escape into public areas.

“Animal escapes pose a risk of injury and/or behavioral stress to the animals and to the personnel involved,” a USDA veterinarian wrote in a March 3 report.

A USDA report written in June 2014 noted that a monkey involved in a biosafety level 3 research escaped its primary enclosure and had to be recaptured. None of the subsequent reports listed escapes by animals involved in biosafely level 3 research.

Biosafety level 3 research at LRRI investigates potentially dangerous illnesses and toxins transmitted by inhalation, such as avian flu virus, anthrax and ricin.

Nonprofit LRRI, located on Kirtland Air Force Base, uses monkeys, dogs, rabbits and other animals to study causes and treatments for respiratory illnesses. USDA routinely performs unannounced inspections at LRRI and other facilities licensed under the Animal Welfare Act.

“As a result of these routine inspections, LRRI remains nimble in refining its standard operating procedures to maintain stellar operating practices,” LRRI officials said in a written statement in response to the Journal’s request for comment. The inspections allow LRRI “to continue to improve and refine its facilities and processes on a consistent basis.

In 2011, LRRI was required to pay a $21,750 fine as a result of six violations of the Animal Welfare Act. LRRI works under contract with government and private clients ranging from pharmaceutical companies to the Department of Defense, including studies required for federal approval of new drugs.

The USDA reports listed a Dec. 30 incident in which a rhesus macaque escaped while staff were transferring it from one cage to another, and the monkey remained “up in the rafters” for about 45 minutes, according to a March 3 report. The monkey was lured into an enclosure with food after attempts to net the animal failed, according to the March 3 report.

In another incident, a large, male rhesus macaque was able to break a lock on its cage, according to an Oct. 14, 2014, inspection report. The animal escaped into the animal room and had to be darted by staff to be recaptured.

“The facility did not have enclosures available that were sturdy enough for larger male macaques when this animal arrived at the facility,” the report said.

LRRI later undertook new training and lock systems to prevent escapes, it said.