Birds, rats, and mice comprise approximately 90 percent of all animals in U.S. laboratories, yet they have no legal protection. Enacted in 1966, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was originally created to protect the health and well-being of all warm-blooded animals used in experiments. However, in 1972, birds, rats, and mice were specifically excluded from AWA regulations by the Secretary of Agriculture. In an effort to gain legal protection for birds, rats, and mice, AAVS launched Project Animal Welfare Act: An Act for All on April 30, 1998, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
Fight for Change
In 1998, following earlier actions taken by prominent animal rights groups, ARDF and others filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), requesting that the birds, rats, and mice exclusion be removed. A year later, ARDF and two additional plaintiffs (a psychology student and InVitro International, a company that develops non-animal alternative test methods) filed a lawsuit against the USDA claiming that the agency did not have a legal basis to exclude the animals .
On September 28, 2000, 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 enforceable. This agreement with USDA, granting birds, rats, and mice protection under the AWA, was hailed as one of the Top Ten Victories for Animals in 2000.
This victory was not, however, without challenges. 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), an animal research lobbying organization, made two attempts to block our progress. NABR and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore 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 Senate amendment in May 2002, “birds, rats (of the genus Rattus), and mice (of the genus Mus) bred for use in research” were, specifically excluded from the protections afforded by the AWA.
The USDA notified the public in June 2004 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, not bred for research, who are covered by the AWA.
Birds, Rats, and Mice
Birds, rats, and mice have the same basic needs and sentience as other animals, like dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits, and primates, all of whom are protected by the AWA. Rats and mice are by far the most used animals in laboratories around the world, and it’s estimated that in the U.S., over 10,000,000 birds, rats, and mice are used in research and testing, compared to 1,000,000 AWA covered animals. Despite this, birds, rats, and mice are not covered under the AWA.
The Animal Welfare Act is the only law designed to cover animals used by breeders, dealers, exhibitors, and researchers, and does more than just set minimal standards for the care and treatment of certain animals. It also requires facilities to be licensed and to report the number of AWA animals used, and that facilities are inspected so assurances on animal health can be made. Importantly, it also requires researchers to consider alternatives to procedures that cause pain and stress for the animals used.
Since millions of birds, rats, and mice are used in research and testing, and have the capacity to feel pain like other animals, consideration of alternatives is a key issue in preventing animal suffering. Instead, scientists using 90 percent of all animals in labs are not legally required to consider alternatives. Rodents in particular, are used excessively, especially in genetic engineering, which creates numerous ‘surplus’ animals, and in many instances, increased animal suffering.
Additionally, facilities using birds, rats, and mice are not required to report their numbers used, so it’s difficult to determine accurate data for U.S. laboratories. Instead, numbers are estimated using data reported on animal use in the European Union, which requires the reporting of birds, rats, and mice numbers.
Although Congress’s original intent of the AWA was to set minimal standards for the care for all warm-blooded animals held and/or used by animal dealers and laboratories, in 1972, the Secretary of Agriculture decided that birds, rats, mice, horses, and farmed animals would be omitted from the regulations.
Former Senator Bob Dole played an important role in the development of the AWA and, in a letter to ARDF, clarified the intent of Congress regarding in this matter. “I can assure you that the AWA was meant to include birds, mice, and rats,” said Dole. “When Congress stated that the AWA applied to ‘all warm-blooded animals,’ we certainly did not intend to exclude 95 percent of the animals used in biomedical research laboratories.”
Congress intended for the AWA to protect animals used in laboratories and in other industries like entertainment, not neglect them. Considering the potential number of animals involved, this oversight could not, and should not, be ignored.
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 using only animals excluded by the AWA. All research facilities should be subject to the same level of scrutiny and be held accountable for violations.
On December 3, 2015, ARDF filed a filed a lawsuit against the USDA for its continued failure to protect birds from unnecessary suffering under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). USDA has failed to fulfill the terms of a 15-year-old settlement with ARDF, in which it agreed to give birds bought and sold throughout the U.S. the legal protections afforded animals like dogs, guinea pigs, and primates. However, despite repeated promises made in public records where it claimed regulations for birds were on the verge of being published, USDA has failed to propose regulations of any kind.