A laboratory that studies the deaths of animals at the Little Rock Zoo, investigates the demise of pets under suspicious circumstances, and battles animal-borne diseases that threaten public health is back in the good graces of national accreditors.
The Arkansas Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory of the state Livestock and Poultry Commission lost its accreditation in 2014 with the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation, in Frederick, Md., but won it back in November.
Accreditation with that organization, or a similar one, is voluntary but important because it shows the lab is operating under international standards, Dr. Russ Summers, the laboratory's deputy director and a veterinary toxicologist, said.
The lab, which has 27 employees, has had a tough last few years, especially with high turnover among its top personnel.
That upheaval led to lax record-keeping, then to officials' failure to meet a deadline of turning in various records and reports to the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians, in Visalia, Calif. The association withdrew its accreditation in 2014.
Despite the setback, it remained the only Arkansas lab that is part of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The network is in charge of coordinating the nation's response to large outbreaks of animal diseases, such as avian influenza, equine infectious anemia, tuberculosis or brucellosis.
"It was critical to remain a part of the NAHLN, so we could respond to any outbreaks in the state and because our staff could be sent to other regions with an outbreak, but are not adequately staffed," Summers said. "At no time during the interim [between accreditations] was our ability to fulfill our responsibilities as a laboratory hampered."
The loss of accreditation required the lab to work more closely with the network, which also sent its officials to Little Rock for a visit and audit.
"Accreditation essentially covers and protects our relationship with NAHLN," Summers said. It enabled the lab to apply for, and receive, some $31,000 in grants from the network, he said.
Although lack of funding still hampers staff recruitment and retainment -- a problem most state agencies likely would lay claim to -- Summers said the lab worked hard for two years to correct its deficiencies to gain accreditation from the Maryland organization, which uses the acronym A2LA.
The Arkansas lab conducts thousands of tests for an array of diseases and thousands more to help farmers and producers keep their herds and flocks healthy and marketable. The A2LA accreditation authorizes the lab to test for six diseases specific to the lab's "scope" of working with the National Animal Health Laboratory Network on "reportable" diseases the network's laboratories track.
Those six are:
• avian influenza, especially important in Arkansas because of the poultry industry.
• Newcastle disease, another virus that affects domestic and wild birds.
• swine flu.
• classical swine fever, also called hog cholera.
• foot-and-mouth disease, an often-fatal virus affecting cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.
• pseudorabies, a contagious viral disease primarily among pigs.
The lab also is in the middle of starting up a program to test for chronic wasting disease among deer and elk.
The lab has a budget of $3.4 million, with a little more than $1.8 million coming from state general revenues. The remainder comes from test fees. Expenses run about $3.3 million a year, mostly in salaries.
The Livestock and Poultry Commission once operated a second lab, in Springdale, but financial problems and antiquated equipment led to its closing in 2004. The University of Arkansas decided in 2004 to open its own diagnostics lab, now operated in Fayetteville by the UA System Division of Agriculture. It opened in 2008.
The Little Rock laboratory also is used, all too often, and sadly, whenever an animal dies at the Little Rock Zoo.
Over the years, the lab has conducted necropsies on Angie, a Brazilian jaguar (cancer); Porky the Warthog (salmonella poisoning); Gnatalie, a 21-year-old sloth bear, (complications from a stroke), and Pooh, 35, a sun bear (various age-related illnesses).
Summers recalled that, on his first day of work at the lab in 2008, the body of JJ, a silverback gorilla, was lying on a table in the lab's pathology section, awaiting a necropsy. "That's something I'll always remember," he said.
Some months earlier, J.J., 21, had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
"We'll put on a full-court press when it comes to helping the zoo," Summers said.
Last summer, the lab investigated the death of Ares, a German shepherd at the Benton Police Department, even though his death wasn't considered suspicious.
"I don't think people realize that we have such a diverse lineup of constituencies," he said, counting large-scale livestock and poultry producers, individual farmers and ranchers, pet owners, veterinarians, wildlife agencies, zoos, and local and state law enforcement agencies among them.
It has investigated weirdness: when some 5,000 dead blackbirds rained down on Beebe in January 2011, the lab's best theory was that the birds had roosted for the night when they were suddenly scared off, likely by fireworks.
Flying low and fast, the birds collided with mailboxes, cars, houses, each other. After weeks of study, the lab found no other plausible explanation.
The lab also investigated the deaths of a couple of dozen bald eagles around DeGray Lake in the mid-1990s. Some deaths remained a mystery. Some were attributed to bacterial infections brought on when the birds ate tainted meat.
Over the decades, it has investigated anthrax among sheep, brucellosis among cattle, equine infectious anemia among horses and the various flus that afflict pigs and birds.
It also will do tests on pets, at the request of owners or through their veterinarians. It has found blunt force trauma, poisoning and gunshot wounds among the cause of death in many cases. The lab performed 262 "small-animal necropsies" in 2016, mostly on dogs and cats, but also on geckos, lab mice and squirrels. Thousands of other samples are taken from live animals to test for viruses and disease.
Summers shared a story with a recent visitor involving the suspicious deaths of three horses in eastern Arkansas in 2013. The lab found that they had been poisoned when someone mixed an insecticide and pesticide into their feed.
"When I see cases of companion animals, of pets, and it appears to be a poisoning by a specific chemical or pesticide, I guarantee you that the person doing that, aside from also not thinking about the ethics or morality of what they're doing, isn't thinking there's going to be somebody somewhere wearing a lab coat looking really closely at that animal's cause of death," Summers said. "If we get that animal [for an examination], we're going to do everything we can to help find out who did that."
SundayMonday Business on 01/22/2017