By Richard Valdmanis
BOSTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday said it has fined Harvard Medical School $24,000 for repeated animal welfare violations at its research facilities that resulted in the deaths of four monkeys since 2011.
The government's decision to fine the elite university follows a lengthy probe into mistreatment of primates at its animal research labs in Massachusetts, one of which Harvard announced this year it plans to close.
Harvard Medical School said it found the fine "appropriate" but an animal rights group said it was too small.
The USDA fine cited Harvard for 11 incidents in 2011 and 2012, including several that noted laboratory personnel handling the animals were not properly trained or qualified.
In one case in February 2011, a laboratory worker overdosed a monkey with anesthetic, causing it to die of liver failure. In two other cases, monkeys died after being deprived of water and in another case a monkey died after a chain attached to a toy in its cage wrapped around its neck, strangling him.
All four deaths occurred at Harvard's lab in Southborough, Massachusetts, which the school announced this year it plans to close for financial reasons. Harvard has a smaller research center with primates in Boston, which will stay open.
Harvard said it had agreed to the USDA's fine. The incidents, most of which were previously reported, had already caused Harvard to revamp some of its research procedures and make some staffing changes.
"The leadership of the School cares deeply about upholding exemplary standards of care and attributes these outcomes to the excellent work of those members of our community who took aggressive action to institute rigorous quality improvements that benefit animal safety and welfare," it said.
Animal welfare advocacy group PETA said in a statement that the fine would have little effect.
"For an institution that receives $185 million annually in taxpayer funds alone, half of which is used for experiments on animals, a $24,000 fine for years of abusing and neglecting monkeys won't motivate Harvard to do better," it said.
(Editing by Gunna Dickson and Bob Burgdorfer)