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Birds, Rats, and Mice
On February 21, 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) enacted regulations to protect birds covered by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), who are used in commercial industries, such as exhibition, breeding, the pet trade, and some types of research. It is the first time in the history of the AWA that regulations specifically meant to protect birds have been enacted. AAVS has worked since 2000 to gain AWA protections for these often-forgotten animals.
For decades, the USDA refused to regulate birds, even though it acknowledged that certain birds were included under AWA protection. It was only after a lawsuit filed by AAVS and our co-plaintiff, the Avian Welfare Coalition (AWC) received a favorable ruling from a federal appeals court that the USDA finally complied. However, the final regulations published on February 21, 2023 have left some gaps that, even with optimal enforcement, will continue to leave many birds without the protection they deserve. Unfortunately, this is part of a pattern of the USDA conceding to the concerns of the regulated industry (breeders, dealers, researchers) over the concerns of animals.
Birds, rats, and primarily mice comprise at least 90 percent of all animals in U.S. laboratories, yet have been denied coverage 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 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, its affiliate the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation (ARDF), and others filed a petition with the USDA, requesting that the birds, rats, and mice exclusion be removed. A year later, ARDF and two additional plaintiffs (a psychology student and In Vitro 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 these animals.
On September 28, 2000, USDA settled the lawsuit and agreed to begin the rulemaking process to grant protection of birds, rats, and mice, which included 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 animals, 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 (Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002), 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 (AWC), a court order issued in May, 2020 required USDA to complete rulemaking to protect birds, a process that the agency originally began in June, 2004. USDA’s failure to provide coverage for these animals has allowed birds nationwide to needlessly suffer in commercial industries regulated by the AWA, particularly in exhibition, breeding, and the pet trade. USDA enacted final regulations on February 21, 2023, with current licensees and registrants required to comply by August 20, 2023 and new AWA licensees and registrants by February 21, 2024.