Rats, Mice, and Birds

mice - photo by filo

The US does not include within its animal welfare laws and regulations the rats, mice and birds who are subjected to research and testing. The federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was amended in 1970 to include all warm-blooded animals who are commonly experimented upon. However, the term “animals,” for purposes of the protections delineated in the statute, is defined so as to expressly exclude rats, mice, and birds—the very animals who constitute the majority of animals in research!

Following a lawsuit filed by animal protectionists, the US Department of Agriculture agreed to settle the litigation by beginning the rulemaking process to extend protection to rats, mice and birds. While most people involved in research were open to the idea of bringing these animals under the law, the National Association for Biomedical Research was vehemently opposed.  Claiming that it would be too expensive, research industry lobbyists succeeded in obtaining a 2002 amendment to the Animal Welfare Act specifically excluding rats (of the genus Rattus), mice (of the genus Mus), and birds bred for research from the protections afforded.

This all-too-commonly heard refrain—that it would be much too costly to regulate the huge numbers of mice and rats in research—does not bear up to scrutiny. The truth is that no scientific “need” exists for investigators to work with so many animals obtained cheaply. It is largely a matter of scientific rigor. Why, for example, does a reproductive physiology study “require” hundreds of mice as research subjects but less than a dozen subjects when done with macaques? The answer has far less to do with the comparative suitability of the subjects than the comparative costs.

When research is conducted with animals such as nonhuman primates, who are very expensive to obtain and care for, the investigator must devise a research methodology that eliminates to the greatest extent possible extraneous variables. The situation is different when one does research with inexpensive animals who are considered “disposable.” A few animals more or less do not make a big difference in the budget, so care is not taken to address all of the details that would make the research methodology sound and scientifically reliable with fewer animals; the investigator simply “uses” more research subjects to overcome variables and thereby obtain statistically significant results. (Keep in mind that key among the lobbyists who denied protection to rodents were those who profit from selling rats and mice for experimentation and testing.)

As it stand now, the rats, mice and birds who constitute the vast majority of the animals in research have no legal protection. Basic standards for their housing and care are not overseen by USDA veterinary inspectors. The number of these animals in research is not reported. There is no legal mandate to consider alternatives to the use of these animals, or to devise means to alleviate or reduce pain and distress. Congress should correct this situation by amending the Animal Welfare Act to include all warm-blooded species in research.