FARGO — Cass County prosecutors are working to determine whether they should pursue criminal charges against the North Dakota State University meat laboratory and one of its employees after a federal agency found staff violated humane slaughter requirements.

State’s Attorney Birch Burdick is reviewing information sent to his office by the advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals about NDSU Meat Lab workers shooting a heifer in the head five times with a captive bolt device before it died.

PETA asked Burdick’s office to file animal cruelty charges against the facility and worker who shot the heifer three times last month but failed to render it unconscious.

“We will review the information provided,” Burdick said in an email to Forum News Service. “I expect we may also need additional fact-gathering performed. We will review all the information we believe pertinent and determine whether any charges are appropriate.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

PETA contacted the Cass County State’s Attorney Office after the U.S. Department of Agriculture found the animal’s slaughter on Feb. 22 was “an egregious violation of the humane handling requirements” dictated by federal regulations.

The employee shot the heifer in the head three times but missed the brain, according to a USDA letter detailing the incident. The animal remained conscious all three times, the letter said. The animal vocalized, blinked and bled as it stood, according to the USDA.

The interim manager disassembled and reassembled the bolt device, reloaded it and attempted to stun the heifer, but it misfired, the USDA said. On the fifth attempt, the animal was rendered unconscious, the letter said.

PETA called the report disturbing. It claimed the staff may have violated a North Dakota law by repeatedly shooting the animal in the head, which is not a "usual and customary livestock industry practice that would otherwise be exempt from prosecution."

“That animal felt the same fear and pain you or I would,” PETA Assistant Manager of Investigations Colin Henstock said in a phone interview.

The USDA noted NDSU has a humane handling program that meets federal criteria, but it was “not operating under a robust systematic approach to humane handling at the time of the incident,” the letter said. The USDA suspended the assignment of inspectors at the Meat Lab until NDSU provides written corrective and preventive measures to the federal agency.

NDSU provided those measures to the USDA on Feb. 23, so it was able to resume slaughter operations with increased oversight from a federal inspector, USDA spokesman Buckley McKay said. The length of that oversight depends on a number of factors, so it's unclear how long it will last, he said.

The university did not reply to messages left by Forum News Service Tuesday afternoon, March 16.