Which Animals Are Used
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Although they are used in experiments in a variety of ways, and unlike many other animals such as dogs, guinea pigs, and rabbits, there is little data available documenting the number of birds used in U.S. laboratories, because birds “bred for use in research” are excluded from coverage under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).
In the European Union (EU), however, birds in laboratories do have some legal protection, and regulatory policies there require the reporting of their numbers. The latest EU figures available show that birds were the fourth most commonly used animal in research after mice, fish, and rats in 2019. Over 642,000 birds, including quail, pigeons, parakeets, and finches, were used in research and testing that year.
In the U.S., we can learn a bit about research that is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has awarded tens of millions of dollars for research using birds. Many of these experiments focus on infectious disease and viruses, including influenza, as well as testing and developing vaccines. Birds are also often used in basic biological research to understand how their bodies function, such as how air flows through their respiratory system during flight, communications and cognitive studies, and toxicology. Research on wild birds is common and may include highly invasive procedures, such as field surgery, but birds can also experience severe distress in the process of being trapped, handled, and restrained.
Additionally, birds (usually chickens and turkeys) are used in research by the agriculture industry in an effort to produce animals who have more “meat” and grow faster and in a more cost-effective manner. Animals can be given chemicals, or even be genetically engineered, to affect their growth rates.
Although most birds used in research are not covered by the AWA, it is important to note that some are. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) entered into a settlement agreement with AAVS’s affiliate, the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation (ARDF), following a legal challenge seeking AWA protection for birds, rats, and mice. Although a 2002 Congressional action reversed much of the settlement, USDA did agree to regulate large-scale bird breeders who supply the pet trade, birds in exhibition, and birds used in research, provided they do not fall under the “bred for use in research” exclusion in the AWA.
Unfortunately, it took 20 years of legal wrangling before the USDA finally completed the regulatory process to protect birds. AAVS’s 2018 lawsuit against USDA, with co-plaintiff, Avian Welfare Coalition (AWC), finally succeeded in a court order instructing the agency to fulfill its legal obligation to issue regulations covering birds as defined in the AWA. On February 21, 2023, USDA issued its final regulations which establish a series of definitions and minimum standards. However, consistent with other areas of USDA regulations, it remains to be seen whether the accommodations and exceptions included for the industry will prevent effective enforcement.