Researchers Recoil from Santa Cruz Biotech as Company Jettisons Its Goats and Rabbits

A firestorm has rained down on Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Inc. (SCBT)—long one of the world’s largest antibody producers—following a February 19, 2016, Nature article entitled “Thousands of goats and rabbits vanish from major biotech lab.” In the article, which has received extraordinary attention, Sara Reardon describes the disappearance of 2,471 rabbits and 3,202 goats identified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that were on the company’s premises in July 2015. There were no animals when the USDA inspected the facility six months later.

Could it be that SCBT’s owners, John and Brenda Stephenson, are planning to get their company out of the business of extracting antibodies from rabbits and goats? Of the over 70,000 SCBT antibodies listed by host species on www.Biocompare.com, which calls itself “The Buyer's Guide for Life Scientists,” over 70 percent are derived from goats or rabbits.

Regardless of SCBT’s plans, a growing body of researchers are encouraging their cohorts to shop elsewhere for antibodies. Many of those calling for a boycott linked to the Nature article. The headline of a February 25 article on www.BuzzFeed.com states: “Scientists Are Boycotting This Company for Alleged Goat Abuse, Bad Tweets.” The article explains that in the midst of the furor, instead of posting a serious response to the litany of allegations, a tone-deaf SCBT tweeted a series of seemingly random images involving cute animals and cartoons—including a dog and goat as friends—further offending scientists who are seeking to better understand the situation. According to reports, SCBT also temporarily blocked the author of the Nature article (as well as scientists who were critical of the company) from its Twitter account.

The dramatic exodus of the facility’s goats and rabbits coincides with an unprecedented series of enforcement actions by the USDA against SCBT. These actions are tied to numerous citations against the company by USDA veterinary inspectors, alleging serious violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). SCBT has been on the USDA’s radar for more than a decade, as it has been routinely cited for its apparent failure to comply with the AWA’s minimum requirements. (See AWI Quarterly, winter 2013 and fall 2014.) In 2012, a complaint was filed by the USDA against SCBT, and in 2014, a second complaint was filed. On August 7, 2015, a third complaint was filed. All three are currently pending against the facility.

Third complaint

The third complaint describes an inspection that took place a month earlier, in which a goat diagnosed with urinary stones was found by the USDA veterinary inspector “in a depressed posture, unwilling to walk, and breathing heavily.” The on-site veterinarian was on vacation and no veterinarian could be located to help the animal. Five hours later, the goat was “agonal, suffering and in distress.” Ultimately, in violation of the facility’s own standard operating procedures (calling for veterinary approval of euthanasia), the animal was killed by a non-veterinarian using a captive bolt gun. No sedative or secondary euthanasia injection was used, another violation of standard procedure. The facility was also cited for mishandling rabbits.

The complaint lists other circumstances that would demonstrate an ongoing pattern by SCBT of failing to provide adequate veterinary care to animals in dire condition. Animals suffered from extreme weight loss, severe lameness, and respiratory issues. One goat sustained a snake bite and “developed a visibly swollen jaw and chest and draining lesion, and experienced a 23% weight loss” within a two week long period. A few weeks later, a USDA inspection notes that the goat “was unable or unwilling to close its mouth, which in conjunction with the goat’s other visible conditions, indicated that the goat was unable to eat normally.” A month later, and a day after SCBT was cited again by the USDA, the goat was finally euthanized.

The complaint further states that SCBT “has demonstrated bad faith by misleading [USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] personnel about the existence of an undisclosed location where [SCBT] housed regulated animals,” and that this nondisclosure “precluded inspection of that location and those animals.” The site in question—known as Barn H7—housed more than 800 goats used in antibody production.

Administrative hearing against SCBT

A week and a half after SCBT was slapped with its third complaint, a hearing against the company regarding the first two complaints commenced, with administrative law judge Janice Bullard presiding. (See www.awionline.org/scbthearing.) The USDA stated that a 2005 stipulation agreement under which the company was fined $4,600 for alleged AWA violations from October 10, 2002, through December 9, 2004, is the “starting point” for the case, noting that in the 33 inspections conducted afterwards, the USDA continued to document serious deficiencies. The USDA then called a number of its veterinarians to testify about what they observed at the facility. In a startling development, the department also subpoenaed a former SCBT veterinarian, Dr. Robin Parker, to testify. Her bombshell testimony corroborated the USDA’s findings.

The USDA veterinarians described goats in poor health, including those who were debilitated, lame, extremely thin, and “in distress or pain or suffering.” One goat had a “nasty, fairly fresh wound on its hind leg” believed to be from a coyote attack. Another had a broken leg and had not received veterinary care for days; the bottom part of the broken leg was flopping around while the goat ran around the paddock. One goat died right in front of the inspectors. The veterinarian who conducted routine compliance inspections was asked about the company’s ability to comply with the AWA requirements. She replied, “I don’t see a will to,” and later added, “We’re seeing the same problems over and over and over again.”

On the third day of the hearing, the USDA rested its case and SCBT began calling its witnesses, who floundered in their feeble attempts to explain away the company’s actions. The next morning, SCBT requested to rest its case and establish a briefing schedule, or suspend the hearing, to pursue settlement. After the USDA agreed, based on SCBT representations, Judge Bullard suspended the hearing and requested status reports by September 30, 2015.

On September 24, the USDA reported that no settlement had been reached and the likelihood of such a settlement was “remote.” SCBT’s lawyers, on the other hand, claimed that “the parties have reached substantial common ground on many aspects of a potential resolution.” The USDA proceeded to file a motion requesting resumption of the hearing at the earliest possible date. The hearing is set to recommence on April 5, 2016, and a hearing on the third complaint is scheduled to follow immediately thereafter. No other registered research facility has faced a hearing of this magnitude since the AWA became law nearly 50 years ago.

Barn H7, the undisclosed site

In its answer to the second complaint, SCBT stated that it “categorically denies that its staff intentionally misled or deceived the inspector about the existence of the H7 barn,” chalking it up to a “series of misunderstandings.” However, at the hearing Dr. Parker testified that it was the decision of SCBT’s founder and owner, Dr. John Stephenson, to intentionally deceive the USDA about the existence of the barn because of the possibility of USDA citations. According to Dr. Parker, Dr. Stephenson viewed the USDA as being “nitpicky.” When SCBT’s lawyer asked Dr. Parker on cross-examination if she agreed with this assessment, she responded, “No sir, I don’t. I would be hard-pressed to say that’s true.”

Ultimately, the USDA learned of the site after Dr. Parker blew the whistle. As noted above, SCBT claimed there was no attempt to mislead the USDA about the existence of Barn H7; rather, they claimed that their newly hired veterinarian (who followed Dr. Parker) had “never worked in the H7 barn and was not aware of it.” Yet, it was this employee who accompanied the inspectors, one of whom testified that it was “striking” that this newly hired veterinarian “drove [to Barn H7] without any hesitation,” and “by the time we got there, she seemed kind of sheepish and uncomfortable. It seemed quite apparent that she knew that we knew that, you know, they had been not forthcoming about the whole thing, and frankly dishonest.” Another inspector testified that this veterinarian ignored the office manager’s directions and instead drove directly to the barn. Judge Bullard sought to clarify this testimony, asking the inspector to confirm that this veterinarian had indeed been instructed to drive in one direction, but drove in the opposite direction. The inspector confirmed this.

Hiding this site from the USDA appears not to have been the only deception, as testimony revealed that SCBT, without approval of its Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and despite repeated denials to its USDA inspector, engaged in one or more terminal bleeds (exsanguination) of rabbits without the sedation mandated by American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines. Only when the inspector discovered a dead rabbit covered in blood in a freezer, and asked why this rabbit was so bloody, did SCBT admit that this rabbit endured a terminal bleed. One of the USDA veterinary inspectors testified to what “seems to be an ongoing problem with misinformation and misrepresentation by the facility.”

Research facilities are responsible for reporting animal use to the USDA on an annual basis, including pain or distress experienced by animals where relief is not provided. Clearly animals have suffered at SCBT, and yet the company has not reported a single incident of it in its annual reports to the USDA from 1999 through 2015.

What now?

AWI commends the USDA for taking solid enforcement actions against SCBT. Although it took years, the department has finally given this case the attention it so gravely needs. AWI also applauds those in the research community who have elected to obtain their antibodies from other sources. AWI urges the USDA to continue to prosecute SCBT to the fullest extent of the law, and specifically to seek revocation of the company’s dealer license and a significant fine on a par with the alleged violations.

Further information on SCBT can be found at www.awionline.org/scbt.