Are you a cat person or a dog person? These animals are man’s best friends, and indeed they would not exist if humans had not formed a bond with their ancestors millennia ago and bred them to create today’s domesticated species. For millions of pet owners across the nation, cats and dogs hold a special place in their hearts – hence most Western nations’ decision not to eat the meat of domesticated animals. Unlike some pets that are confined to cages, dogs and cats often become “part of the family.” Keeping in mind that many taxpayers have opened their homes to animal companions, is it acceptable for the U.S. government to spend taxpayer funds performing inhumane experiments on cats and dogs?
Animal testing for science is highly controversial, and individuals must make their own decisions on what is unethical and what is justified – depending on the species involved, the purpose of the testing, or the level of suffering experienced by the animal subjects. But according to the White Coat Waste Project (WCW), an organization that deals with government waste in animal testing, government departments are guilty of unnecessary and cruel experiments on these animals. A new report describes strange cannibalistic tests performed on cats at the Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“USDA Kitten Cannibalism”
The WCW claims that since 1982 a USDA laboratory in Beltsville, MD, has unnecessarily incinerated more than 3,000 cats and spent more than $22.5 million on research, much of it not useful for the lab’s stated goal of improving food safety. The organization’s recent study revealed that over the past decade the lab has purchased cats and dogs killed in Asian and African markets and used the bodies in inexplicable experiments, feeding them to the cats or injecting their tissue into mice. “It’s crazy. Cannibal cats, cats eating dogs — I don’t see the logic,” Jim Keen, report author and former USDA scientist, told NBC News. “It’s totally unrelated to the food safety mission. We shouldn’t be paying for that as taxpayers.”
The experiments provide little useful information to scientists, says the report:
“These were all abnormal diets for cats, dogs and mice so likely irrelevant to natural toxoplasmosis biology. Their scientific relevance and justification (are) questionable, at best, as (are) their relevance to American public health since we do not consume cats and dogs, and the practice is now outlawed in the U.S.”
In 2018, the same lab was accused of incinerating hundreds of healthy kittens, after performing tests on them related to the parasite Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii), which can be contracted by warm-blooded creatures. While this food-borne parasite is relatively common, it rarely causes illness (toxoplasmosis) in humans except in pregnant or immune-compromised people. Eight-week-old kittens were fed infected meat and given a few weeks to excrete the oocysts (eggs) produced by the parasite, before they were incinerated. Cats are uniquely used in the research because they are the only species that can host the parasite’s eggs.
The shocking part of the story, however, is the insistence of the lab in unnecessarily breeding and then killing the kittens, rather than allowing homes to be found for them. The USDA admits that the kittens quickly develop an immunity and recover from their infection, with most becoming healthy by the end of the experiment. Although the lab claims that the cats must be destroyed, rather than adopted, for safety reasons, the American Veterinary Medical Association says that handling exposed cats is unlikely to pose a risk to humans. The CDC suggests that cats are no longer infectious a few weeks after contracting the parasite, and that even at-risk people can still keep cats if certain precautions are taken. The lab also kills the cats used for breeding, which were never infected.
Also according to the AVMA, one cat can excrete millions of eggs in one day, begging the question of how many eggs the USDA needs and why it needs to continue breeding more kittens – especially since the eggs can survive in most conditions. It is also unclear why this research continues after 36 years, especially as there has been no notable progress since the year 2000. Rep. Michael Bishop (R-MI) was particularly disturbed by the experiments and authored the Kittens In Traumatic Testing Ends Now (KITTEN) Act to quash the program – a bill that has recently been reintroduced in response to the cannibalism report. Bishop wrote in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue:
“I was shocked to hear that the USDA, the very organization set out to enforce animal welfare laws and regulations, was treating the life of animals with such contempt … it appears that this project treats kittens as test tubes. Put simply, it creates life to destroy life. While I support the objective of making food safer and protecting people and animals from infectious diseases, we must ensure taxpayer dollars are used effectively, efficiently, and humanely.”
The WCP revealed in 2017 that the Department of Veterans Affairs was performing torturous experiments on dogs to little scientific benefit at labs in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Richmond, VA. The Los Angeles program bred Dobermans to suffer narcolepsy, injected the dogs with antidepressants and amphetamines for several months, and then killed them to dissect their brains. The purpose for the research or the benefit to veterans is unclear, given that the experimenters were already aware that “the underlying cause for narcolepsy in humans is different from that in dogs.”
At the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cleveland, 150 beagle puppies were “sedated, restrained in stereotaxic devices, (had) their heads and necks dissected, their lungs intentionally collapsed, holes drilled into their skulls, their brains cut apart, and then killed” in “curiosity-driven” experiments with no clear benefit to veterans. Indeed, one “reckless” surgeon at the McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond was seemingly still allowed to treat human patients after being banned from animal experiments for botching surgeries on dogs.
“If these fatal experiments on healthy puppies are in fact taking place with poorly documented medical benefits for veterans, taxpayers should not have to foot the bill,” said former Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), who represented areas near the McGuire VAMC. Brat sponsored the Preventing Unkind and Painful Procedures and Experiments on Respected Species (PUPPERS) Act to end painful or stressful government experimentation on dogs in 2017, and the bill was reintroduced in February 2019. One of the bill’s 60 co-sponsors was Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), an army vet who lost his legs in Afghanistan. He said in a statement:
“While I was recovering from my injuries, I saw firsthand the important role that dogs play in helping veterans recover from war’s physical and psychological tolls. For too long, the VA has gotten away with conducting these harmful — sometimes fatal — experiments on dogs. These tests are abusive, waste taxpayer dollars and must be stopped.”
“It’s heart-breaking,” one veteran told the Daily Mail. “We use dogs for war, we use dogs for therapy, and now we are going to hurt them? It’s kind of an insult for them to do what they are doing to these dogs in our name.”
Animal Testing and Government Waste
The VA experimentation has been defunded, and shocked reactions over the canine studies prompted an audit of tax-funded animal testing by the Government Accountability Office, with results showing much room for improvement in both transparency and financial efficiency. Members of Congress have been repeatedly surprised to learn that government agencies had provided misleading information and essentially conducted these animal tests in secret, at taxpayers’ expense. While bills like the KITTEN and PUPPERS acts may seek to address these experiments, they are reactionary and do little to illuminate what other experimentation is going on behind closed doors. A more effective solution may be the recently introduced Cost Openness and Spending Transparency (COST) Act, a brainchild of Sens. James Lankford (R-OK), Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Rand Paul (R-KY).
“Taxpayers in Iowa, and across the nation, have a right to know exactly how their hard-earned dollars are being spent,” said Ernst. “The COST Act guarantees hardworking Iowans have easy access to see how their tax dollars are being spent, and gives them the ability to decide for themselves whether or not the price is right.”
While the COST Act is a step in the right direction in terms of responsibility to the American public, what about our responsibility to the animals that have weathered millennia at our sides? Many of us have accepted these furry friends as integral parts of our families; we owe them a debt of gratitude and a duty of care that the government is willfully violating.