Chinchillas, docile South American rodents with big, round ears and soft, thick fur, are about as sensitive to sounds as humans. That’s one reason why medical researchers use them to study hearing loss, such as exposure to hazardous noise levels—studies ethics review boards would never allow to be done on humans. In the United States, Moulton Chinchilla Ranch, in Minnesota, seems to be the only company that breeds and sells chinchillas for medical research.
But after being cited for more than a hundred alleged animal welfare violations between 2013 and 2017, owner Daniel Moulton is in court this week fighting to keep his operating license.
At his facility, which has roughly 750 chinchillas, inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found animals with weeping wounds, eyes crusted shut, and a range of injuries, including in one instance the partial loss of a limb, according to the agency’s court complaint.
The agency is seeking civil penalties of an unspecified amount and revocation of Moulton’s license, which would prevent him from continuing to breed and sell chinchillas and bar him from reapplying for a license.
The USDA has been “going after me,” Moulton tells National Geographic. He says his animals receive good care and regular veterinary visits. In his opening statement, delivered to a D.C.-based judge in a teleconference because of the pandemic, he disputed the animal welfare allegations, arguing in his opening statement that USDA inspectors don’t understand chinchilla care and are trying to drive him out of business.
“We inspect every animal in the morning and at night and look at them during the day when we’re there,” he said. He added that he does weekly safety checks of their cages and that he’s been raising chinchillas for nearly 55 years.
This is the first federal animal welfare case involving research animals to go before a judge in six years, says Eric Kleiman, a researcher at the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute. Most animal welfare infractions are settled by correcting the issues, paying a fine, or both. But in a case of chronic or severe infractions, the agency issues a formal administrative complaint with the court. If the facility owner disputes the allegations, the case must proceed with a court hearing.
This chinchilla proceeding is “a case study of everything that is wrong with the animal welfare system,” he says. According to Kleiman, the business should have been shut down and its animals seized years ago.
The Animal Welfare Act, the federal law that regulates the treatment of animals sold as pets and used for research and exhibition, sets low standards for required minimum care, animal welfare advocates say. The USDA’s enforcement of the law has also fallen off dramatically during the past five years. Under former President Donald Trump, the agency changed its enforcement process to work more closely with license-holders to fix problems instead of documenting them as citations and pursuing fines or other penalties.
“It takes these extreme situations where a person has years and years of severe violations to get USDA to do anything about it” beyond follow-up inspections, says Deborah Press, a former USDA lawyer who is now associate general counsel at Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that opposes animal research. “USDA has the dual task of promoting agriculture and also protecting animals used in animal industries, so these two interests are completely at odds,” she says.
More than 80 of the alleged violations USDA inspectors reported during the four years were for poor or nonexistent veterinary care that caused animals’ “immense avoidable suffering,” USDA lawyer Rupa Chilukuri argued before an administrative law judge.
Chinchillas requiring urgent veterinary care still hadn’t received it after multiple inspections, months apart, records show.
Moulton said in court documents and in his opening statement that he “obtained the assistance of at least seven vets” during that period. One provided routine checkups every six months, he said.
Dirty and unsafe cages also were ongoing problems, according to USDA’s complaint. Inspectors noted filthy drinking water, buildup of feces, and exposed nails and sharp wires facing in toward the animals. In July 2014, an inspector found that “the decomposing body of a deceased newborn chinchilla was underneath an enclosure, buried in waste,” according to the complaint.
USDA filed its complaint in 2018 but has continued to find welfare problems at Moulton Chinchilla Ranch, according to its records. During a May 2021 site visit, inspectors noted that the waste build-up in one part of the facility had attracted “excessive flies” and that the ammonia smell was so pungent that it irritated inspectors’ throats and eyes and put animals at risk.
Many of the inspectors’ observations have been backed up by an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) from October 2020 to January 2021. The investigator found numerous chinchillas with untreated injuries, including open wounds with exposed bone, and three freezers holding bags of chinchilla remains, says Dan Paden, a vice president at PETA. (Moulton tells National Geographic that the animals died over the course of multiple years and that he had been keeping them to skin for the fur market. “Why throw away a perfectly good pelt?” he says.)
In video footage reviewed by National Geographic, Moulton told the investigator that he spends only about 45 minutes a day caring for his hundreds of animals—and that typically he’s the only person caring for them. (In court, Moulton said his wife sometimes assists him. She has not been accused of wrongdoing.)
“I’m hard-pressed to recall another USDA-licensed facility where as large a number of animals have suffered and died without any effective intervention from the USDA or from local law enforcement,” Paden says.
PETA’s findings have led to a criminal investigation into whether Moulton violated Minnesota’s animal cruelty law. Rice County attorney John Fossum, whose office is handling the case, says they expect to make a final determination on whether to file charges this week.
Chinchillas for sale
There are 85 USDA-licensed chinchilla dealers in the U.S., but most raise their animals for the pet trade. Moulton says he sometimes sold his for pets, but now he exclusively supplies them for research. He sold “about 30” in the past month, he says, and recently fielded two calls from military installations seeking hundreds.
“I’m the only one providing these animals for research,” he says. (The USDA doesn’t keep records on which companies sell animals for that purpose, though it confirmed that two other companies known to sell them to laboratories no longer have active licenses. A third told National Geographic that it’s going out of business.)
Moulton’s ranch is the only chinchilla supplier listed on a central shopping website for research animals, as Science reported on July 16. The site, the Laboratory Animal Science Buyers Guide, published by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS), also includes the ranch in its “vendor showcase,” a paid advertising section that allows companies to highlight their products more prominently for the 13,000 laboratory industry professionals in its “trusted network.”
The association lists vendors who ask to be included and doesn’t accredit facilities, according to Doug Taylor, president of AALAS. “It’s really the buyer who should look at [a facility’s history and licensure] and decide if this is a vendor I want to work with,” he says. If Moulton loses his USDA license, AALAS would “in all likelihood” remove the facility from their guide, he says.
The case against Moulton and his chinchilla ranch has court dates scheduled through September. The judge has barred journalists and other attendees from sharing witness testimony or the presented evidence until the end of the trial to prevent witnesses from being influenced or harassed.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.