The federal Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966 set minimum requirements for handling, housing, and care for dogs, cats, primates, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs in the premises of dealers and in laboratories. In 1970 the Act, renamed the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), was amended to extend protection to all species of warm-blooded animals. However, the regulations promulgated for enforcement of the law arbitrarily excluded birds, mice and rats from the definition of animals, thus denying these species the protection to which they are entitled. There are no concrete figures, but it is generally agreed that approximately 95% of all animals used for research and testing are birds, mice and rats. The vast majority of laboratory animals have been left outside the law!
Birds, mice and rats used for experimentation do not benefit from the routine, unannounced inspections conducted by US Department of Agriculture (USDA) veterinary inspectors. When USDA veterinarians inspect research facilities they specifically overlook the care of birds, mice and rats. Nonetheless, from time to time, inspectors have noted horrors during their inspections including the following:
"During the inspection of the unmarked paper bags in the freezer, I discovered a moribund Long-Evans rat that was barely breathing. The frigid condition of this animal and the fact that it was surrounded by chewed plastic bags containing other dead rats, indicated that it had been in the freezer for some time, possibly a day or more. The rat slowly recovered as it warmed.
"Had this incident occurred involving a species covered by the Animal Welfare Act, the University would be liable for serious violations of sections pertaining to the IACUC [Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee], euthanasia, provision of appropriate veterinary care, and training of personnel. The fact that the animal confined in the freezer was a rat and therefore not a covered species in no way diminishes the seriousness of this egregious lack of humane care for this animal. To me, this disturbing event raises grave concerns regarding the function of the IACUC and the delivery of veterinary care."
In response to a lawsuit brought by the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation et al., USDA settled the case last fall by agreeing to initiate the process for extending the AWA's coverage to these other animals. Shortly thereafter, the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), a long-standing opponent of the AWA that represents research facilities and animal dealers, interceded.
Dr. Henry Foster, founder and chair of Charles River Laboratories, Foster's attorney son, and Frankie Trull created NABR in Trull's living room more than 20 years ago. Foster made clear the commercial value of promoting use of the maximum number of laboratory animals: "If you read the papers, everything seems to have carcinogenic effects. But that means more animal testing, which means growth for Charles River…so you can see why we continue to be enthused and excited" (The Wall Street Transcript, May 21, 1979). Charles River has continued to expand since that time, recently opening a Gnotobiotics operation producing about 2,000 female mice per week and a new facility the company describes as "dedicated to the contract breeding and management of genetically engineered (transgenic, knockout and mutant) mice and rats." If the Act encompasses birds, mice and rats, in addition to providing humane care and treatment, researchers will have to consider alternatives to the use of these animals—this objective conflicts with animal dealers' interest in maximizing the sale and use of animals in experimentation.
Regrettably, NABR convinced US Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) to attach a mandate to USDA's annual appropriation from Congress preventing the agency from conducting any activity related to birds, mice and rats during this fiscal year!
Much of the biomedical industry appears to be rallying behind NABR and, unfortunately, we anticipate a sustained effort by NABR and their cohorts to deny basic protections to the millions of birds, mice and rats subject to experimentation in the United States each year.