By Mary Beth Sweetland
Congress is now poised to vote on an amendment to the Farm Bill that may
forever exclude 95 percent of animals used in laboratories from any legal
protection. The amendment was introduced by outgoing Senator Jesse Helms as a
favor to medical research trade groups, who have fought the inclusion of
mice, rats and birds under the Animal Welfare Act, the only federal law
offering even minimal protection for animals used in experiments.
But even as Senator Helms was claiming that rats and mice needed no
protection and that "a rodent could do a lot worse than live out its life
span in research facilities," an undercover investigator for People for the
Ethical Treatment of Animals was documenting neglect and abuse of mice and
rats at a university in Helms' home state.
The PETA investigator took a job as an animal care technician at a laboratory
at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, last October. During the
next six months, right up until April 17, she witnessed a disturbing and
callous disregard for the suffering of thousands of mice and rats caged and
used in a variety of experiments.
She found mice and rats crippled by enormous tumors, nearly as big as their
bodies, and hunched over in obvious pain, sick from undiagnosed illness, who
were never seen by a veterinarian or humanely destroyed. One veterinarian,
instead of euthanizing a suffering mouse, told our investigator: "he might be
dead by tomorrow."
Laboratory employees didn't know how to perform euthanasia properly. Mice who
were supposed to be instantly killed by neck-breaking often survived-and were
tossed in a box inside a refrigerator along side dead mice. Some technicians
killed mice by cutting their heads off with scissors.
Mice with two or three litters-sometimes more than 20 mice-were crammed
inside a single plastic box about the size of a shoebox, sometimes in
violation of the university's own regulations.
Our investigator complained again and again to her supervisor, to the staff
veterinarians and even to the university's Animal Care and Use Committee.
Their response? On one occasion, they reprimanded her for reporting "too
many" sick animals. Otherwise, her complaints were addressed in a way that
made it appear they had caused concern, but no action was ever taken. For
instance, her complaint about finding live animals in the dead animal cooler
caused feigned alarm from her director but weeks later she would find yet
more live animals on the dead pile.
One supervisor told her that the experimenters are supposed to follow strict
guidelines in animal care, but because the regulations are never enforced by
the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, the university or by any
government agency, the experimenters do whatever they want-even neglecting or
hurting the animals in their care.
If mice and rats were included in the Animal Welfare Act, U.S. Department of
Agriculture inspectors would have oversight powers. They could make
unannounced inspections of this laboratory at least once a year to see that
mice and rats (and all animals used) had adequate caging, veterinary care and
Last year, USDA had already agreed to include mice and rats under the Animal
Welfare Act, and many research organizations supported that decision, among
them the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine, The American
Association for Laboratory Animal Science, Procter & Gamble, Scientists
Center for Animal Welfare, Johns Hopkins University Center for Alternatives
to Animal Testing, and DuPont Pharmaceutical Co.
The animal experimentation trade groups, including the National Foundation of
Biomedical Research, that have convinced Senator Helms that millions of
animals should be denied this modicum of protection under the law, have for
years fought any and all improvements for animals used in laboratories. They
are way out of line with a nation that is increasingly conscious of humane
Rats and mice may not be as attractive as cats and dogs, but they suffer
every bit as much when they have their heads cut off with a pair of scissors.
Helms needs to step out of the way and let the USDA do its job.
Mary Beth Sweetland is the Director of Research, Investigations and Rescue
for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
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