A federal anti-cruelty law called the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) gives some protections to warm-blooded animals used in research laboratories. That is, to 5 percent of them. It leaves the rest — rats, mice, and birds — out in the cold.
For the animals it does cover, the “AWA requires researchers to minimize animal pain, use pain relief, set appropriate housing for species, and provide appropriate veterinary care,” according to an Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) white paper. The other side of that looking glass is that for 95% of animals in labs, researchers aren’t legally required to provide decent housing or any anesthetic or veterinary care at all.
There is now a bill in Congress to extend the AWA to protect rats, birds, and mice. Please sign the petition at the bottom to support it.
Right now, experiments using rats, mice, and birds are not subject to the “3 R’s”, which “are implicit in the AWA“: replacement, reduction and refinement. “Replacement” means that unless the experiment must be done on an animal, it should be performed on a replacement like a computer simulation. “Reduction” means that the experiment uses the smallest number of animals possible. “Refinement” means that the experiment has been designed to minimize the animals’ pain and suffering.
When a scientist sets out to conduct an experiment on AWA-covered animals, she must get approval from an internal oversight committee (IACUC) that will ask about compliance with the 3 R’s. If she wants to experiment on mice instead, the AWA doesn’t require her to submit to IACUC oversight. There is no law holding her to the 3 R’s: she can use mice where a computer model would be just as useful, cause the mice as much pain as she wants to, and use as many of them as she wants to.
The gaping hole in the AWA has had tragic results for animals. Here are just two examples of experiments on rats that IACUCs and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved and taxpayers underwrote, as I reported on Care2:
- Drug-induced arthritis in rats makes exercise harder
As In Defense of Animals points out, by injecting “rats’ knees with a substance that causes arthritis,” the University of New England ruined “the best part of these animals’ miserable lives” because they could no longer run on their wheels. Why did NIH grant public money to the school for such a stupid and heartless study? Here’s a clue: it used a kind of grant meant to “expose students to research.” Rather than training the next generation of vivisectionists on projects that could at least hypothetically help improve human lives, the government and the university underwrote this joke of an experiment because they could — the animals involved were rats, and therefore without legal protection.
- Rat bitter-taste nerves appear to work
This experiment was an exercise in revealing the obvious. In Defense of Animals describes it:
Inspired by the incredible variety in bitter substances, Ohio State University experimenters decided to see what would happen if they cut a couple of the nerves that connect taste buds to the brain. The experimenters slit the throats of ten rats so that one nerve could be cut and punctured the eardrums of ten other rats so that the other nerve could be severed. The experimenters performed both procedures on the ten unluckiest rats. The ten “luckiest” rats just had their throats slit and their eardrums punctured, with the experimenters leaving their “bitter taste” nerves intact. How merciful.
What did these experimenters learn? The nerve that was more sensitive to bitter stimuli was also more important in learning to avoid bitter stimuli — go figure.
AWA protection may have helped the animals tortured in these experiments. Perhaps they didn’t undergo IACUC review because the subjects were rats, and if they had, would have been laughed out of the room before they could even ask the government for money.
Sadly, AWA coverage doesn’t always count for much. Two experiments conducted on animals the AWA does protect made the following findings:
- Alligators’ sounds and anatomy differ from humans’
- Labs are stressful places for monkeys
So AWA coverage is no guarantee that an animal won’t be made to suffer for no good reason. But it does count for something. The American Association for Laboratory Animal Sciences — the trade group for animal experimenters — has called excluding rats, mice, and birds from the AWA “ethically indefensible,” which shows that at the very least the AWA can get vivisectors talking about the ethics of what they do to animals.
As ALDF notes in its white paper, “like humans, rats, mice, and birds experience pain, fear, distress, and even joy. In fact, research indicates that these animals experience emotions that scientists once thought only existed in humans, including empathy.” Not protecting these sensitive animals undermines vivisectors’ claims to treat their subjects’ as humanely as possible.
Excluding 95% of lab animals from welfare protections makes a joke of the AWA and exposes vivisectors’ shameful, blatant indifference to the welfare of the animals at their mercy. Rats, mice and birds deserve as much protection from pain and suffering as we are politically able to provide. Please sign the petition below to encourage Congress to amend the AWA to serve its basic purpose: protecting animals used for experimentation.
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