Birds, Rats, and Mice

Project Animal Welfare Act: An Act for All

The Laboratory Animal Welfare Act, now known as the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), was created in 1966 to regulate the use of certain animals in research in the United States. It remains the only federal law designed to cover animals used by breeders, dealers, exhibitors, and researchers.

Birds, Rats, and Mice

Birds, rats, and mice represent roughly 95 percent of animals used in research, and they currently have no legal protection. AAVS is working toward modifying the Animal Welfare Act to grant them the same protection as other species like dogs, cats, and rabbits.

When it was first introduced, the Animal Welfare Act set minimal standards for the care, housing, sale, and transport of dogs, cats, primates, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, and other animals held on the premises of animal dealers or laboratories. The Act also required the licensing of dog and cat dealers and research facilities, and the identification of dogs and cats to prevent their theft.

Birds, mice, and rats are notable absences from that list of animals, though it is commonly known that they are (and have always been) used liberally by laboratories, and have the same basic needs as other types of animals.

It is estimated that over 100 million rats and mice are used each year, and, with the growing popularity of genetic engineering, the number is increasing. Clearly, the AWA showed Congress’s intent to protect animals used in laboratories, not neglect them. And, at such a large scale, this oversight can’t be ignored. This is why we initiated our Project Animal Welfare Act: An Act for All campaign, hailed as one of the Top Ten Victories for Animals in 2000.

Why is it Important?

Since facilities using these animals are not required to report the number used, it is not possible to determine an accurate number of birds, rats, and mice utilized in laboratories. We do, however, know that they represent roughly 95 percent of animals used in research, and that researchers are not legally required to consider alternatives to the use of unlisted species. Rodents, in particular, are used excessively, especially in genetic engineering, which creates numerous ‘surplus’ animals, and in many instances, increased animal suffering.

Without coverage under the AWA, these species are not assured the most basic standards of care such as access to food and water and relief from pain or distress. Currently, the USDA does not inspect facilities that are only using species excluded by the AWA.

All research facilities should be subject to the same level of scrutiny and be held accountable for violations.

AAVS’s Fight for Change

In 1998, following earlier actions taken by prominent animal rights groups, AAVS’s affiliate, the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation (ARDF), and others, filed a petition with the USDA, requesting that the birds, mice, and rats exclusion be removed.

In 1999, ARDF and two additional plaintiffs (a psychology student and InVitro International, a company that develops non-animal alternative test method) filed a lawsuit against the USDA.

On September 28, 2000, the USDA settled the suit and agreed to begin the rulemaking process to grant protection of birds, rats, and mice. This process would include solicitation of comments from all stakeholders to assure that the regulations are practical. This victory was not, however, without contention.

Though the majority of the scientific community supports protection for these species, a few biomedical research interest groups, including the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), a small but powerful animal research lobbying organization, made two attempts to block our progress. NABR and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD filed a motion to intervene on the lawsuit, but were denied. NABR was successful, however, in having a rider attached to an Agriculture Appropriations Bill, which allotted funding to the USDA for 2001. This rider prohibited any action on the inclusion of birds, rats, and mice for that year.

Taking advantage in the delay of protection, these biomedical researchers lobbied to fight the new legislation, and unfortunately, following a Congressional amendment in May 2002, birds, rats (of the genus Rattus), and mice (of the genus Mus) bred for use in research were, again, specifically excluded from protections afforded by the AWA.

In June 2004, the USDA notified the public that it had amended the AWA regulations to reflect this change to the law. The USDA also began to solicit comments to begin regulating those birds, rats, and mice that are included in the AWA.

In March 2006, responding to a petition filed by AAVS, USDA revised its Policy #10 to clarify that genetically engineered and cloned animals should not be denied AWA protection.

Click here to view a timeline of Animal Welfare Act Progress.

The AWA can be made more effective and well managed with support from the scientific community, the animal protection community, and the citizens of the United States. We will continue our campaign for the inclusion of birds, mice, and rats, and all vertebrates. We hope for your support in doing so.