Of Mice, Rats, Birds and Men
Updated: Feb 1, 2019
Facts are often stranger than fiction.
A case in point: The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) that provides basic protections for animals used in laboratory research doesn’t cover 95% of those animals, including mice, rats, and birds. While dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, and nonhuman primates must receive appropriate food, shelter, and medical care, the majority lack any such consideration.
Instead, researchers can subject them to excruciating procedures without anesthesia, house them in overcrowded conditions or in isolation, and dispose of them as they see fit.
It verges on a horror story.
What is the Animal Welfare Act?
The AWA is the federal law that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers by setting minimal acceptable standards. In regards to research, the AWA requires suitable housing, veterinary care, and research being conducted in compliance with the “three R’s”: replacement, reduction, and refinement.
Replacement: Where possible, researchers should perform experiments on a replacement, such as computer simulations, mathematical models, and in vitro.
Reduction: Researchers should reduce the number of animals used to the smallest amount possible.
Refinement: Researchers should design experiments to minimize the animals’ pain and suffering.
A 1970 amendment to the AWA covered all warm-blooded animals. The federal anti-cruelty law did not specify protections but directed the USDA to adopt regulations to protect the animals.
Follow the Money
Despite direction from Congress, the Secretary of Agriculture promptly excluded the majority used in research. In 2002, the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-NC, amended the Farm Bill (H.R. 2646) to legally seal the deal to exclude these animals. Why? His top contributors included tobacco companies that experiment on these animals.
So, USDA veterinary inspectors do not oversee their care. Their numbers are not even reported (though estimated to be up to 100 million).
The economics also make the circumstances worse for these animals. Cheaply bred and sold by laboratory supply companies, they’re used en masse. With higher priced animals—say rhesus monkeys —the ledgers require more carefully designed research methodology to minimize variables. The higher costs of these animals also ensure they’re better treated because, by golly, they’re more expensive to replace.
Cheap animals are disposable. You can have a study involving a thousand mice with fewer controls for variables, because the large numbers themselves will ultimately bear out statistically significant results. (Apparently, some studies are so unconstrained that they cannot be replicated in different labs.)
Many researchers themselves, including the American Association for Laboratory Animal Sciences and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, say the treatment of these animals is “ethically indefensible.”
The lack of regulation even goes against the intent of Congress. Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-KS, stated, “When Congress stated that the AWA applied to all warm-blooded animals, we certainly did not intend to exclude 95% of the animals used in biomedical research laboratories.”
The current law is even out of whack with the National Institute of Health’s voluntary industry standards to consider alternatives and minimize and avoid pain for all vertebrates (including cold-blooded animals, such as fish and frogs), as well as the National Academy of Sciences’ Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
U.S. Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-VA, introduced a bill (H.R. 6693) last year* to include rats, mice and birds under the AWA, basically restoring it to its 1970 scope as the bipartisan framers intended. Unsurprisingly, the bill now lingers in the Committee on Agriculture.**
While Utah does not have a representative on that committee, petitions are available on the internet to weigh in on the issue and help bring it to a vote. Don’t let Congress Mickey Mouse around on this.
*First published in Pets in the City Magazine, October 2013.
**UPDATE: This bill died in Congress. Of course.