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Mad Cow Comments Provoke Probe

Two workers at a national research center say they were threatened with their jobs after questioning how the facility handled the waste of animals used in mad cow disease research.

Richard Auwerda and Timothy Gogerty alerted their bosses and Ames city officials in May that the National Animal Disease Center might be contaminating Ames' sewage plant with diseased tissue and fluids.

Afterward, the two animal caretakers received threats and comments from their bosses who worried how the facility's research would be affected, said Michael Lewis, Auwerda's attorney.

Research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture facility has been stopped until at least August while the caretakers' concerns are reviewed.

Sandy Miller Hays, a spokeswoman for the lab, downplayed the supervisors' comments, characterizing them as "sarcastic" and not serious threats.

"I gather people are wishing they hadn't said certain things," she said Monday.

Lewis, however, said the facility's research leader, Marcus Kehrli, threatened to close the caretakers' unit after the concerns were made public.

A senior official at the Agricultural Research Service, which oversees the facility, spoke with Kehrli and another supervisor about their comments, but no disciplinary action was taken, Hays said.

Auwerda, reached Monday by The Associated Press, referred comment to Lewis. Messages left with Gogerty were not immediately returned.

In raising their concerns, the caretakers compared their facility to another lab located on the same campus - the National Veterinary Services Laboratories.

Auwerda and Gogerty said that facility used a more elaborate safety system on animal waste disposal than their own lab.

They also alerted Ames city officials that animal waste may be getting into the city's South Skunk River.

Independent researchers are reviewing the facility's practices, and a report is expected at the end of August.

The facility's mad cow research involves tests of sick animals.

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