© 2023 Boise State Public Radio
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Animal welfare advocacy group targets USDA research at University of Idaho

A brown and white cow standing by a barbed wire fence with other cows standing in the background.
Madelyn Beck
Madelyn Beck

An Ohio-based animal welfare advocacy group has filed a federal complaint alleging animal abuse at the University of Idaho.

The group Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN) alleges two calves suffered unnecessarily when researchers exposed them to hundreds of ticks. One calf died, and in a separate incident, another was euthanized.

“If these animals had been observed more thoroughly, these incidents could have been prevented," said SAEN Executive Director Michael Budkie.

The University of Idaho said it is not responsible for the research, but its institutional Animal Care and Use Committee investigates when an animal welfare issue is reported. A university spokesperson said that the group determined USDA staff handled the incidents appropriately.

The SAEN complaint was based on those reports, which the organization obtained by records request. That’s their primary method of discovering animal welfare issues.

“We want the public to realize that illegal events take place in U.S. laboratories in all likelihood on an almost daily basis,” Budkie said.

Complaints like the one filed against the University of Idaho typically trigger an investigation by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Violations are punishable by fines, but many inspections listed in the APHIS database resulted in written warnings.

The University of Idaho has no history of complaints or inspection violations in the APHIS database.

“They [the university] are at least involved in a supervisory nature, as far as investigating these compliance issues,” Budkie said. “We felt that they should be part of the complaint.”

The research run by the USDA at the root of the complaint is searching for ways to stop certain parasites and ticks from wiping out livestock in both Africa and the United States.

A spokesperson for the agency would not agree to a recorded interview but confirmed in a statement the calves that died had unusual allergic reactions from exposure to the pathogens involved.

“The incidents were not attributed to abuse, neglect or violation of standards,” the agency said.

“From the documentation that we obtained, it's not entirely clear if these were unique situations,” Budkie said.

The USDA wrote of the two deaths, “[The 2020 calf] had a very acute reaction to exposure to the Theileria parva parasite. While the calf was monitored several times a day, once it began to display symptoms, the symptoms progressed in an atypically fast manner that occurs in less than 10% of exposed calves.”

“The [2021 calf] had an extreme, severe allergic reaction to exposure to R. microplus ticks. Such allergic-like reactions are known but this is the first such reaction that has ever been seen in an animal at this facility. There is no available test for this rare trait.”

The USDA spokesperson said the T. parva research concluded, and research around the Babesia parasite continues at the University of Idaho site.

“If R. microplus ticks were to become reestablished in the United States, the cost to the U.S. cattle industry would be astronomical due to the transmission of Babesia parasites that would be likely to accompany the ticks as they spread to cattle in this country that have no protective immunity.”

Budkie, who worked in an animal research facility before becoming an activist against such research in the mid-1980s, wants to see the industry pivot to clinical research on animals in the field experiencing naturally occurring phenomena.

“Simply creating more public awareness about this is a win in and of itself,” he said. “I would suggest that most of the people in your audience were not aware that cows at the University of Idaho - whether they're part of the [USDA] facility or part of the University of Idaho itself - are essentially being fed to ticks.”

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

You make stories like this possible.

The biggest portion of Boise State Public Radio's funding comes from readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

Your donation today helps make our local reporting free for our entire community.