A rare court hearing later this month—the first in 6 years involving a research-related animal facility—could strip the license of one of U.S. scientists’ only suppliers of chinchillas because of animal welfare violations. The docile South American rodents, which have ears similar to humans, are a key model for hearing studies.
At a hearing that opens on 26 July, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lawyers will argue that Daniel Moulton, proprietor of Moulton Chinchilla Ranch (MCR) in rural Minnesota, is a willful violator of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which the agency is charged with enforcing. “This is a landmark case,” says Russ Mead, an animal law attorney at Lewis & Clark Law School. “The government only goes to [this kind of hearing] as the last resort.”
The USDA complaint that prompted the hearing alleges that Moulton’s facility, which holds about 750 animals, is filthy and fly-infested, with exposed nails and sharp wire points protruding inside cages, undiscovered dead animals, and scores of sick and unhealthy chinchillas that do not receive adequate veterinary care. The complaint cites evidence from 3 years of USDA inspections ending in 2017, which noted chinchillas with weeping wounds and sores, untreated abscesses, and crusted, discharging eyes. Since 2014 USDA has cited Moulton 112 times for alleged AWA violations, most recently after an inspection in May.
By comparison, 11 USDA-regulated facilities that supply another small mammal—rabbits—for research have together incurred a total of 35 citations since 2014, an average of 3.2 per facility.
“This is the worst animal care record I have ever seen in terms of its severity and its long-term nature,” says Eric Kleiman, a researcher at the Animal Welfare Institute who has been tracking AWA enforcement for 30 years.
The last research-related animal facility to confront a USDA judicial hearing was Santa Cruz Biotechnology in 2015. That company, which housed goats and rabbits used to make antibodies, agreed to a settlement that included a $3.5 million fine and the loss of its USDA licenses.
Moulton, an attorney in Rochester, Minnesota, has denied all the charges. (Moulton’s law license was suspended in Minnesota last year for failure to file and pay taxes.) In documents and an interview with Science last year, he said he provides adequate veterinary care and that overzealous, undertrained USDA inspectors have unreasonably targeted him with minor complaints. He supplies chinchillas for research, pelts, and the pet trade.
Researchers use chinchillas for studies of hearing loss and of ear infections and their treatment. In 2019, U.S. scientists used 1250 of the animals, according to USDA data.
Since 2010, National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded researchers have published 177 papers indexed in PubMed that use chinchillas; of the minority that identify an animal supplier, several name Moulton. MCR remains the only chinchilla supplier listed in the Laboratory Animal Science Buyers Guide published by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS). As part of its fee-based advertising, AALAS also features Moulton in its Vendor Showcase on the website of its buyers guide.
In April, Douglas Taylor, then-president of AALAS, wrote in an email to ScienceInsider: “The association is monitoring the [MCR] situation and awaiting a final decision by USDA and local authorities. If a decision against MCR is rendered, AALAS will take appropriate action.”
NIH-funded researchers continue to use Moulton chinchillas, such as a group at the University of Nevada, Reno, School of Medicine that published this preprint in May.
Moulton is also under criminal investigation for allegedly breaching Minnesota’s animal cruelty law. That investigation was prompted in December 2020 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which says it conducted an undercover investigation at the chinchilla ranch from October 2020 to January and took its findings to a local judge. PETA alleges that Moulton denied chinchillas veterinary care for open wounds, exposed bones, abscessed and ruptured mammary tissue, and protruding or pus-filled eyes, and that he left one animal to die after Moulton’s dog attacked it.
Minnesota is a rare state that allows citizens to directly ask a court for a search warrant and a law enforcement investigation in animal cruelty cases. The search warrant was served at MCR in January and law enforcement agents removed several animals.
The local prosecutor, who was Facebook friends with Moulton, transferred the case to the county attorney in nearby Rice County, who says he expects to make a charging decision by the end of this month.