Lawsuit Claims UT Southwestern Fired Employee for Reporting Animal Abuse, Including Mice Stuck in the Freezer

Donna Pulkrabek's job with UT Southwestern Medical Center was to ensure that the dogs, goats, pigs, sheep, rabbits, guinea pigs, frogs, rats and mice researchers use for medical experiments were treated humanely and in compliance with federal guidelines. When she allegedly discovered that wasn't happening, she complained.

According to her attorney and a lawsuit filed in Dallas County last week, higher-ups ignored Pulkrabek's reports of mice that were supposed to have been euthanized but were instead placed in a freezer to die; of pigs that underwent experimental surgery without anesthesia; of rats that were left to broil and die in overheated rooms; and any number of other instances of noncompliance with federal rules, both in animal treatment and record-keeping.

She first reported the problems in January to the university's Office of Institutional Compliance, the lawsuit says. When nothing happened, she brought the matter to an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee meeting in April. Two days after her concerns were dismissed there, she brought the issue to the attention of David Russell, the school's dean of basic research.

Still, she says, nothing happened.

In May, Pulkrabek filed a complaint with the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, the arm of the National Institutes of Health charged with ensuring the humane treatment of lab animals. I have a call into NIH's press office for confirmation and an update on the status of any resulting investigation but have not yet heard back. Her attorney Wes Dauphinot said the complaint included 30 to 40 documented instances of noncompliance.

Within a week, Pulkrabek found herself on indefinite administrative leave while UT Southwestern investigated her claims, according to the suit. Her leave ended on August 31, when she was fired, a decision she claims was in retaliation for her report to OLAW and a violation of state whistle-blower protection laws.

UT Southwestern released a statement today saying the school does not comment on pending litigation, "but we adhere to the highest standards in the care and use of animals in research. UT Southwestern fully complies with all applicable regulations and monitoring requirements, and its animal research program is registered with, and accredited by, all appropriate regulatory and accrediting entities."

Update at 3:50: NIH spokeswoman Nicole Gabarini says that the agency takes all reports of noncompliance very, very seriously and investigates every single one. "However, NIH cannot discuss whether or not an investigation is taking place, and does not comment on ongoing investigations if such investigations are underway."

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson