ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The University of Alaska Fairbanks has been penalized $127,100 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after 12 musk oxen died from malnutrition at the school's large animal research station earlier this decade.
An administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the civil penalty Thursday for violating of the Animal Welfare Act. An animal rights group that initially filed a complaint over the deaths in 2011, prompting a USDA investigation, announced the penalty Tuesday.
The size of the penalty "tells me the USDA is sending a message to these facilities that they are no longer going to stand for these criminals that break the law, and we're very happy to see this," said Michael Budkie, executive director of the group Stop Animal Exploitation Now.
The university entered into the agreement without admitting fault.
"We decided to go ahead and settle it because quite honestly, it would have been more expensive to go through a hearing," said university spokeswoman Marmian Grimes. "That would have done nothing for the animals," she said.
A message left with a USDA spokeswoman after business hours on the East Coast on Tuesday wasn't immediately returned.
The university failed to provide adequate veterinary care, identify that the musk oxen were losing weight or enlist veterinary treatment for the animals, the USDA's complaint said. It says the animals died or were euthanized between Aug. 29, 2010, and Feb. 16, 2011.
Grimes said the university did take issue with two points in the USDA complaint, including the federal agency saying the animals died of starvation.
She said the deaths would better be described as from malnutrition since the musk oxen had ample amounts of hay and grazing land. However, the animals had a deficiency of trace minerals like copper and cobalt which made them look emaciated. Changes were made in dietary supplementation, the animal care structure and the way health concerns are reported. No one was fired in the wake of the die-off.
Grimes said they also disagree with the USDA's contention that proper veterinary care wasn't immediately forthcoming after the animals began to die. She said it took time to nurse the musk oxen back to health and find the right balance of supplements.
The herd is now healthy, she said Tuesday. The herd includes 19 animals, ranging in age from newborns to 20 years old, the upper end of life expectancy for musk oxen.
Musk oxen were once native to Alaska but were hunted to extinction several hundred years ago. The animals were reintroduced, starting with a small herd from Greenland in the 1930s. The university herd was established about 30 years ago.