Earlier this year, the Congress amended the Animal Welfare Act to strengthen a section of law dealing with dogfighting, cockfighting and other forms of staged animal fighting. With these amendments, the law now bans any interstate or foreign commerce in fighting animals or cockfighting implements, and establishes felony penalties for violations.
It’s the strongest section of the Animal Welfare Act—one that seeks to halt a reprehensible form of animal abuse. The rest of the Animal Welfare Act seeks only to regulate conduct. It does not ban any use of animals, even though there are practices that should never be allowed under the law, such as surgery on live animals for purposes of sale demonstrations, or other forms of experimentation or educational use that are clearly out of bounds. (Reps. Steve Israel, (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) have introduced legislation, H.R. 2193, to ban the use of live animals in sale demonstrations.)
What’s more, the AWA turns taxonomy on its head and excludes entire classes of animals from any protection whatsoever. For instance, the AWA does not at all protect animals used in agricultural production or research. And approximately 95 percent of all laboratory animals—mice, rats and birds bred for use in research—are excluded from any protection under the AWA.
This is wrong, and it is also scientifically unjustifiable. All mammals and birds (not to mention reptiles, amphibians and fish)—even the smallest among them—deserve minimal care standards and protection from needless use and abuse. Of all people, scientists should know that these animals can suffer, and that they should not be arbitrarily excluded from protection.
Just last week, the Albuquerque Journal reported on some hideous experiments on mice at the University of New Mexico. These experiments were not for some life-saving purpose, but were in fact conducted by a high school student and overseen by a former chair of the UNM research oversight committee!
In 2003 and 2004, the high school student taped several mice to a wall by their tails, forced others to swim until nearly drowning, and shocked still more with electrical charges, all to “measure hopelessness and depression.”
The Albuquerque Journal obtained documents from the university that revealed that researchers "could hear the mice jump every time they were shocked until they stopped jumping and just huddled in the corner." The mice "produced intense squeals" when shocked, and researchers "could hear the mice jumping and scratching in reaction to the shocks even when not watching them."
The Journal also reported that UNM’s legal counsel, invoking “executive privilege,” redacted information sought by the newspaper about the experiments. The UNM research veterinarian objected to the project, and eventually quit his post.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson—who learned of the controversy through the news accounts—issued a statement saying, “I am disappointed that this abuse was allowed to happen under any circumstances.” He also criticized the attempt to conceal the information from the public. (Special thanks go to Animal Protection of New Mexico for helping to expose these experiments.)
Why is a high school student even allowed to use animals in a university setting? What other horrid experiments in laboratories occur that have not come to light? Some estimates place the number of mice, rats and birds used in research each year in the United States at 20 million. It’s impossible to accurately estimate these numbers because the law doesn’t even require any reporting on these species’ numbers or plight when they are bred for research.
No animal use industry should be allowed to essentially police its own ranks. Abuses occur when arrogance and personal and institutional advancement trump the social good. It’s part of the role of government to establish standards and compel the industries to play by the rules. And, in some cases, it’s up to government to determine that certain practices just should not occur in a civilized society.