Philip Joris needed chinchillas. The Belgium-based hearing researcher turned to the South American rodents six years ago, excited about studying their auditory capabilities, so similar to our own.
But he was surprised to find that no one in Europe seemed to be breeding chinchillas for laboratories; they were only raising them for the pet trade, and those animals, which may be inbred and have problematic genetic mutations, aren’t ideal for hearing research.
He quickly widened his search, asking his European and American colleagues for help, and they recommended Moulton Chinchilla Ranch, a facility in rural Minnesota that seems to be the only place raising the animals for research. Daniel Moulton, the owner, was very responsive, Joris says. “He was very good in our interactions, very concerned about the animals—and shipping across an ocean is not trivial.”
Moulton sent three groups of chinchillas to Joris’s office at the University of Kuleuven, in Leuven, in 2015 and 2016—30 animals in total—and none showed any ill effects from the travel or any underlying conditions, he says. “They all arrived in great health.”
But what Joris didn’t know, he says, was that during the time he’d been communicating with Moulton, the facility had been cited repeatedly for animal welfare violations. Between 2013 and 2018, Moulton Chinchilla Ranch, which now has about 750 chinchillas, accumulated more than a hundred violations of the Animal Welfare Act, a U.S. law that protects animals used in research, on exhibition at places like zoos, and at breeding centers like Moulton’s.
There are 85 USDA-licensed chinchilla dealers in the U.S., but no others are actively raising the animals for research.
At a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administrative hearing that concluded on October 8, Judge Jill Clifton revoked Moulton’s license to breed chinchillas and issued $18,000 in penalties in an oral decision. She said that the welfare violations at Moulton Chinchilla Ranch were part of an overall pattern of chronic problems with the animals’ health, sanitation, and safety.
“You are unfit to be a licensee,” she said, adding that her decision permanently bans Moulton from reapplying for an Animal Welfare Act breeding license. “I do not know why you have been unable to understand the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act,” she said. “I believe it is more from disinterest than anything else.”
The hearing lasted 18 days and was the first animal welfare case involving research animals to go before a judge in six years, according to Eric Kleiman, a researcher at the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute. (In Minnesota, local prosecutors decided in August not to pursue a case against Moulton for potential violations of the state’s animal welfare law, partly, it said, because of the pending federal hearing.)
Clifton said that every violation alleged by the USDA—more than a hundred—are now proven. She said her decision can be appealed within the next 30 days.
Moulton testified during the hearing that he’s made efforts to improve his facility and obtain more consistent veterinary care, among other measures.
“Like so much of what the USDA does,” Kleiman says, the judge’s suspension now, years after the violations began, is “too little, too late.”
If Moulton is allowed to continue operating, “the Animal Welfare Act would have no meaning,” says Russ Mead, an animal law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School, in Portland, Oregon.
Months before Joris placed his first order, Brenton Cox, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector, walked through Moulton’s facility. He testified during the hearing that he had “nightmares” about one of the dead animals he saw and that the facility became his training tool for “how to deal with the worst-case scenario facilities.”
During an inspection in July 2014, Cox discovered a dead newborn chinchilla that had fallen through its cage and was buried in excrement from other animals. Two months later, he noted in an inspection report that the chinchillas’ drinking water was green. He reported that sharp nails and rusty wires faced inward toward the animals. Other inspectors found that animals’ eyes were crusted shut and that veterinary care was inconsistent. Health problems inspectors had flagged hadn’t been treated months later.
Cox also testified that Moulton, who had at least two other unrelated businesses, likely was stretched too thin to provide adequate care for his chinchillas. Moulton cared for his hundreds of chinchillas largely alone, rarely hiring outside help. “He didn’t really have time or enough Mr. Moultons to go around,” Cox said.
What the closure means for hearing research
The loss of Moulton Chinchilla Ranch as a supplier for labs may hasten the ongoing decline in the use of chinchillas for hearing research.
Chinchillas have been used for human hearing research because they hear better at lower frequencies than other rodents, and their large ears and ear anatomy are easily examined.
But according to Sanford Feldman, the director of comparative medicine at the University of Virginia, researchers have increasingly turned to animals such as zebrafish and mice, which mature faster. They’re also purposely bred with genetic mutations that cause diseases in humans, so researchers can acquire highly specialized animals for their studies. During the past four years, only 36 hearing studies based on chinchillas have been listed in PubMed, a medical journal search tool, compared to more than a thousand with mice.
Without a supply of chinchillas from Moulton’s facility, researchers likely will turn to guinea pigs, says Joris, who was not involved in the hearing.
It “would be unjust and would be in direct conflict with the purpose and the intent of the Animal Welfare Act” to allow Moulton to continue operating despite these violations just to help the research community with their supply, testified Aaron Rhyner, who oversees the USDA’s Animal Care unit.
Hearing studies, like most animal research, often would not be approved in humans: In one recent U.S. Defense Department-funded chinchilla study, for example, chinchillas were exposed to multiple blasts to study their progressive hearing loss.
“One can easily imagine the pain and fear chinchillas experience in a laboratory,” says Kristie Sullivan, vice president for research policy at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that opposes animal research. Models of the human ear using human cells and tissues could instead “provide understanding of aspects of ear development and pathology that are unique to humans and cannot be gained with animal studies,” she says.
During the USDA hearing, Feldman, who characterized his relationship with Moulton as friendship rather than professional—though he examined one of Moulton’s dead chinchillas—said that the problem of chinchillas’ eyes being crusted shut likely arose from a type of infection researchers have learned more about only recently that’s difficult to treat. The pathogens live on surfaces for months and can easily travel large distances in the air, he said, adding that to eradicate that threat, Moulton would have had to euthanize all his animals, fumigate the facility, and restock it.
Even so, Feldman said, some of the problems inspectors found at Moulton Chinchilla Ranch, such as the exposed sharp edges in cages and holes large enough for a newborn to fall through, could not be ignored. “It’s a recipe for an injury for an animal,” he said.
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.