Tel Aviv University calls abuse accusations by animal rights group ‘outrageous, ridiculous’

Zoological center volunteer claims rodents kept in crowded, cruel conditions.

A WHISTLE-BLOWER provided this photo of rodents in a cage at Tel Aviv University’s I. Meier Segals Garden for Zoological Research. (photo credit: PETA)
A WHISTLE-BLOWER provided this photo of rodents in a cage at Tel Aviv University’s I. Meier Segals Garden for Zoological Research.
(photo credit: PETA)
Tel Aviv University vehemently rejected accusations that it mistreated animals in its zoological center, after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a complaint on the subject to Israel’s National Council for Animal Experimentation.
PETA’s complaint is based on a report from a volunteer who worked this summer at the I. Meier Segals Garden for Zoological Research, and alleged that animals were subject to poor conditions at the center, a statement from the group said. The report, according to PETA, accused the research center of keeping rodents in inordinately high temperatures and crowded conditions, often without water bottles and sharing cages with piles of waste and decaying animal carcasses.
In response to the claims, a statement from Tel Aviv University said that “PETA’s accusations are outrageous and ridiculous.”
PETA sent the letter of complaint to Israel’s National Council for Animal Experimentation and the United States National Institute of Health on Monday, alleging violations of Israel’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Law and the US Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
“Tel Aviv University is obligated under the law to provide these vulnerable, sensitive living beings with decent housing, clean food and water and veterinary care,” said Dr. Alka Chandna, PETA senior laboratory oversight specialist. “PETA is calling on US and Israeli authorities to fully investigate whether Tel Aviv University is cruelly and illegally neglecting these small, vulnerable animals.”
Citing photos and videos taken by the volunteer this summer, the letter accused the center of failing to provide adequate space for the animals, alleging that the cages of spiny mice and degus contained as many as 30 animals in an area no larger than an A4 piece of paper, and that most mouse cages contained up to 50 animals. In addition, only about 20 percent of the cages have water bottles, the letter said.
PETA, via the volunteer, also accused the center of failing to ensure that animals are housed in an appropriate temperature range of 20-26°C, holding them instead in “dangerously hot conditions, with temperatures soaring to 38°C” and without proper ventilation.
Many of the animal enclosures, according to the letter, were filled with waste, such as feces, urinesoaked bedding, rusty nails and broken pieces of wood. In addition, many of the cages “are teeming with maggots, flies and other insects,” the letter added.
“The stench is unbelievable, more like that of a public rubbish bin than a living space,” the letter quoted the volunteer as saying. “While attempting to clean the back walls of some of the cages, I could not breathe due to the severe ammonia smell and dust particles in the air. According to the cage cleaning records, the breeding cages had not been cleaned since December.”
Two final issues, the letter said, were a lack of adequate veterinary care and a failure to provide humane euthanasia as a means to relieve pain for the animals. Citing the volunteer, the letter describes how “the rotting bodies of animals who had died” were left in cages alongside live animals.
“We urge you to investigate the concerns summarized in this letter and, if the claims are substantiated, to take swift and decisive action against Tel Aviv University,” the letter concluded.
A statement from Tel Aviv University adamantly denied the majority of the letter’s claims, describing the accusations as “baseless and ridiculous.”
“We entirely reject the allegations raised in PETA’s letter,” the statement said. “The Zoological Garden operates according to international standards whose purpose is to preserve the welfare of the animals for which it is responsible.”
Stressing that the garden is “monitored closely and continuously” by the Council for Animal Experimentation, as well as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the university said that the council’s most recent comprehensive review of the center occurred in June – during which time no faults in animal care were discovered.
“The claims brought against the treatment methods and the conditions of animals at the Zoological Garden in our opinion are caused by an alarming ignorance of a volunteer working in the garden for a short time period, who did not bother to turn to the staff members to clarify the allegations,” the statement continued.
“The arguments raised are totally baseless and ridiculous.”
In addition to denying the volunteer’s claims, the university accused the individual of actually “causing damage to the animals when she cleaned the cages and mixed individual rodents that belonged to different groups, and even individuals of different sexes, which led to aggression and mutual injuries.”
After the head caretaker attempted to address the issue, the volunteer disappeared from the center and failed to return, the statement said.
Regarding the specific complaint about the lack of water in some cages, the university explained that desert rodents do not consume water, and that in the wild, they get the fluids they need from chewing on leaves, stems and roots. The particular species to which the letter was referring has been bred in the center for over 30 years, since the animals’ ancestors were taken from nature, and they have had unparalleled reproductive success, the university statement said.
“We provide them with water, in the form of vegetables, from which they derive the water, vitamins and phytosterols that they need,” the statement continued.
Examining the issue of cage size and capacity, the university acknowledged that “when there is reproduction of rodents, overcrowded conditions can temporarily occur.” Certain rodents, like spiny mice, can easily give birth to five babies at once, leading to an overabundance during breeding season, the university statement explained.
Once the babies are weaned from their mothers and grow, they are moved to other cages, the statement added.
While all cages are examined each day, some of them are washed daily and others are cleaned less often – due to periods of hibernation or to avoid disturbing burrows or nests built by the animals, the university said.
“Incidentally, cleaning the cages was precisely the work of the volunteer who lodged the complaints of the failure to clean the cages,” the statement added.
Regarding the temperature of the rodent facilities, the university called the claim that animals were kept inordinately warm “patently false, unfounded and baseless.”
“Every cage has access to shade all day long, and on very hot days a sprinkler system is used to cool the temperature,” the statement said. “In addition, these rodents live in the wild in Israel, some in the deserts, and they are accustomed to and prefer high temperature environments that are typical of their natural habitats.”
The university also denied the presence of rusty nails in the cages, explaining that if a nail becomes exposed, then it is immediately fixed. As far as the broken pieces of wood are concerned, the university said that wood chips are often placed in cages on purpose, as they serve as shelter for animals such as lizards, snakes and rodents. In addition, the wood chips give the rodents something to gnaw on so that their incisors do not grow excessively, the statement added.
Referring to the comment on the presence of “maggots, flies and other insects,” the university said that beetle and fly larvae constitute “an excellent food source, rich in protein and essential fatty acids” for a number of animals at the center.
However, because the animals do not always eat all the larvae, sometimes maggots and flies remain in the cages, the statement explained.
“This is once again a mistake in identification,” the statement added.