Birds, rats, and mice comprise approximately 90 percent of all animals in U.S. laboratories, yet they are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) a law that provides regulatory oversight of commercial uses of animals, including in research and testing. Enacted in 1966, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was amended in 1970 to protect the health and well-being of all warm-blooded animals used in experiments. However, in 1971, 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.
Fight for Change
In 1998, following earlier actions taken by prominent animal rights groups, AAVS and its affiliate, Alternatives Research & Development Foundation (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.
Although the majority of the scientific community supported protection for these species, a few biomedical research interest groups, including the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), an animal research lobbying organization, persuaded politicians to block the implementation of the settlement. Later, an amendment to the 2002 Farm Bill, specifically excluded “birds, rats (of the genus Rattus), and mice (of the genus Mus) bred for use in research.”
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.
USDA to Regulate Birds
As a result of a lawsuit brought by AAVS and the Avian Welfare Coalition, a court order issued in May, 2020 requires USDA to complete rulemaking to protect birds, a process that the agency began 16 years ago. USDA’s failure to provide coverage for these animals has allowed birds nationwide to needlessly suffer in commercial industries covered by the AWA, particularly in exhibition, breeding, and the pet trade.
“AAVS has been working to gain protections for birds since 2000, when USDA first agreed to draft regulations. We were determined that they would not walk away from that commitment,” said Sue Leary, President of AAVS. “In 2004, the agency started the rulemaking process but it never went anywhere. This year, a court agreed with us that our claim of ‘unreasonable delay’ had merit, and that was a turning point.”
To help prevent any more delays, the court order outlines a schedule for the rulemaking process, which will start with USDA publishing a notice by August 24, 2020 for listening sessions.