GALVESTON, Texas (CN) - The University of Texas Medical Branch fired its animal research director for reporting that it let eight monkeys die from a virus rather than euthanize them, the director claims in court.
Brian Gordon, DVM, says the Galveston school hired him in March 2013 to be the attending veterinarian and executive director of its Animal Resources Center, where it keeps numerous research animals.
"At any given time, the ARC might house as many as 4,000 mice, 500 rats, 20-50 non-human primates, 30 sheep, 20-25 pigs, and a range of ferrets, rabbits, guinea pigs," according to the Feb. 11 federal complaint.
Gordon had 25 years' experience as a veterinarian, including director stints at research labs in Florida and Oklahoma. The position called for him to ensure the school's research complied with the Animal Welfare Act, and to work closely with its Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), a body required for every institution doing federally funded research on animals.
But Gordon says his suggestions for improving animal safety caused friction with school administrators, who criticized him "for not being a 'team player'" and wrote him up for doing his job.
"In 2014 there were plans to build a primate facility below sea level. Plaintiff objected to this plan because it would put the animals at risk in the event of a severe storm, which is a common occurrence on the Gulf Coast," the complaint states.
"On another occasion, he was told that he would be fired if he continued raising concerns regarding procedures affecting animal care."
Gordon says the bad feelings became more pronounced last year when the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, a research contractor, audited UTMB's study of 12 monkeys who were injected with the Marburg virus.
The virus is from the same genetic family as the Ebola virus. It can cause fatal organ bleeding and is transmitted by blood and body tissue fluids.
Gordon says that though federal law required him to oversee all aspects of the school's animal research, UTMB administrators did not let him see the results of the NIAID audit, which found "significant animal welfare concerns" with UTMB's monkey research.
Gordon says he eventually got a copy of the report from a third party, shortly before a UTMB veterinarian told him that eight of the 12 monkeys in the Marburg virus study "had died unexpectedly and the deaths went unreported."
"Plaintiff later learned that there had been a longstanding practice of hiding the true cause of animal deaths throughout the time he was employed by defendant," Gordon says in the lawsuit. He says he "never received reports that monkeys had died unexpectedly that monkeys had died unexpectedly or without the aid of euthanasia."
The complaint continued: "When plaintiff inquired about the cause of death, he was consistently told they were euthanized according to protocol. This practice of hiding the true cause of animal deaths and preventing the Attending Veterinarian and IACUC from investigating those deaths violated approved protocols and federal requirements under the AWA [Animal Welfare Act]."
So Gordon blew the whistle to the school's oversight committee: "Once plaintiff learned what was going on, he refused to keep the information secret. He feared these violations had long gone unchecked."
There were other violations, Gordon says. He says UTMB management asked him to move federal funds earmarked for specific research to another program, which he considered illegal and refused to do.
"The purpose of mischaracterizing funds in this manner was to access additional funding without exposing the problems identified in the NIAID audit," the complaint states.
Gordon says his insistence on playing by the rules was too much for UTMB administrators, who fired him in June 2015.
He says the wrongful firing defamed him and destroyed the career he had built over 25 years, forced him to sell his house, move in with a friend and take a temporary, non-veterinarian job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture at a substantial pay cut.
And, Gordon says, he's not the only one. "UTMB has a track record of being unable to retain employees to oversee animal care at its facility," he says in the complaint. "UTMB has employed approximately five (5) different attending veterinarians in the past thirteen (13) years. All of them have solid credentials and appear to be well-qualified professionals capable of ensuring adequate animal care for its research program. Nevertheless, UTMB has had a very high turnover rate for that position."
And, like him, he says, one of the attending veterinarians who was fired has been unable to find a new job in veterinary medicine "of the same stature and compensation level as the UTMB posting."
Gordon seeks back pay, front pay and punitive damages for wrongful termination, retaliation under the Texas Whistleblower Act, civil rights violations and defamation.
He says a "science editor" told him that "UTMB representatives had made negative and untruthful statements" about him after he was fired.
He is represented by Daphne Silverman in Austin.
A UTMB spokesman declined comment.
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