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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Fog/Mist
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UW-Madison campus veterinarian quits, faulting animal care
Says he was subjected to retribution when he complained
on (1) Comment
Brown: 'If you can't take care of the animals, you shouldn't
take the money.'
Brown: 'If you can't take care of the animals, you shouldn't take the money.'

Richard "Jim" Brown recalls his first day on the job, in October 2005, as a veterinarian at the UW-Madison's Research Animal Resource Center (RARC). His first assignment, he says, involved working with primates.

Brown had been a practicing veterinarian for almost a decade, after getting a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the UW-Madison in 1996. But until that day, his experience with nonhuman primates amounted to this: "I drew blood from a monkey, one time." When he asked about training, he was purportedly told to watch the other vets.

"I didn't know what I was doing," he says. "I basically had to train myself."

Hired as a limited-term employee, Brown eventually became a senior program veterinarian for RARC, and was assigned to two campus committees that oversee animal research. He believes animals at the UW receive inadequate care, especially given that the university is now pulling in a billion dollars a year in research funds.

"I'm not an animal rights person," says Brown, 52. "I'm not a member of PETA or anything like that." But he is concerned about animal welfare and, as a taxpayer, is angered by what he's seen at the UW. "If you can't take care of the animals, you shouldn't take the money."

Last Wednesday, Dec. 8, Brown resigned, after months of alleging he has been persecuted for raising concerns about animal care. He called his departure a "coercive termination," meaning he was subjected to an intolerable work environment. "My health and honor have been affected by this pattern of bullying," he wrote.

While the evidence of bullying seems thin, Brown was repeatedly cautioned about the manner in which he expressed on-the-job concerns. On the day he resigned, he received the report from a UW probe into his comments at an Oct. 21 committee meeting, where he complained of "harassment and intimidation."

The investigation concluded: "[It] is inappropriate behavior for you to make statements of this nature during meetings." If he felt harassed, the letter advised, he should file a proper complaint.

Eric Sandgren, director of RARC, declines specific comment on Brown's situation but strongly disagrees that the UW would retaliate against an employee who raised animal-care concerns.

"Not only is that illegal but it is against our program's best interests," he says. "We can only fix problems we know about, so we welcome a full airing of concerns."

Jim Brown, it should be noted, admits he's a bit of a troublemaker. "I'm a gadfly," he says. "I don't have the best professional demeanor."

But his concern about animal welfare appears genuine, and his competence as a veterinarian is not at issue. Sandgren calls him "a great clinician." Brown is also a valued volunteer for the Dane County Humane Society, where he has spayed or neutered nearly 1,500 animals during the last seven years.

"Dr. Brown has given so much to us and our community, and his passion and commitment continue to save the lives of thousands of animals each year," says Pam McCloud Smith, the Humane Society's executive director.

The UW-Madison, at last count, annually used or held 2,614 monkeys, 237 dogs, 264 pigs, 213,116 mice and 40,431 rats for research. Hundreds of people are involved in their care, and mistakes do happen.

Over the last year, the university has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including 20 violations from a single surprise inspection last December. In recent weeks, a team of USDA investigators has come to campus to probe various aspects of the UW's animal care (see article, 10/22/10).

Brown says he met with several of the investigators. After resigning, he reported his treatment as a possible violation of federal rules banning "any reprisal" against employees who report Animal Welfare Act violations. An official from the National Institutes of Health asked for and was provided with more details.

In October 2006, after his year as an LTE, Brown was hired as a permanent "floater" vet who worked at all five UW schools that use research animals. Brown praises the ethics and competency of the UW's veterinary staff, adding that many of them share his concerns. "The only difference between me and everybody else is I don't have the common sense to keep my mouth shut."

While not alleging nightmarish conditions or wholesale failings, Brown calls the level of care received by animals at the UW as "insufficient from a regulatory standpoint."

A few years back, he saw pigs being transported in the brutal cold of winter in an open pickup truck: "I remember bitching about that." More commonly, he finds mice and rats who have died for want of food and water.

Sandgren says the RARC veterinary unit is currently meeting its animal-care obligations but does have "a lot to manage" and needs to fill two open positions. And while things occasionally do happen that shouldn't, he believes RARC and the campus' animal-care committees have "a good record of appropriately resolving problems that arise."

Over the last year, Brown's relationship with the UW became more strained. In March, he complained to the campus Employee Assistance Office of "negative treatment" for raising animal-welfare concerns. "I've been told on more than one occasion my silence was a condition of continued employment."

In April, Brown reported being told that his oversight duties would be reassigned to a newly hired vet. UW Assistant Dean Julie Karpelenia investigated, later concluding that while this possibility was raised, it was not retaliatory. She warned Brown that, in making this claim to colleagues, "you are potentially harming your credibility in the RARC."

In May, Brown filed a minority report objecting to an oversight committee's approval of an experiment involving the use of pigs, saying he found "no justification" for using live animals when the experiment could have been done using previously harvested tissue.

This drew an email from Janet Welter, RARC's head vet.

"Taking such actions, while your prerogative, can have detrimental effects on your working relationship with your committee," Welter wrote. "Damaging those relationships can ultimately negatively impact your ability to function effectively as a program veterinarian."

The next month, Brown objected to a UW plan to continue sheep decompression experiments. It was two weeks after a Dane County judge appointed a special prosecutor to look into whether UW researchers and officials, including Sandgren, should face civil or even criminal charges for allowing the sometimes fatal experiments, in apparent violation of a state law (see 6/2/10 article).

One of the UW's lawyers advised that because there was "no foreseeable risk of sheep deaths" from the planned level of decompression, "it's okay for a vet to sign without risk of criminal liability." But Brown refused.

A few weeks ago, Brown was monitoring a surgical procedure on a primate and noticed flying insects in the room. He says he hesitated, wondering if halting the procedure might get him in trouble.

Brown did demand that the surgery be stopped, and it was. He says, "I got retribution for it." But Sandgren says halting the operation "was absolutely the appropriate thing to do." As he understands it, Brown was "commended" for taking this action.

So what happened when he resigned? Brown says he was told two things: "Goodbye" and "Good luck."

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