The internet erupted yesterday following claims that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is killing 100 kittens every year in a research program that dates back more than three decades. Now, a spokesperson for the department has come forward in defense of the program.
The calls for an investigation were sparked after Rep. Mike Bishop of Michigan sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on May 7 expressing concerns about the USDA Agriculture Research Service facility located in Beltsville, Maryland. According to Bishop’s letter, each year kittens are bred, fed parasite-infected raw meat for two weeks and then killed by incineration.
“I’m shocked and disturbed that for decades the USDA — the very organization charged with enforcing animal welfare laws — has been unnecessarily killing hundreds of kittens in expensive and inefficient lab experiments,” Bishop said in a statement.
The experiments were brought to Bishop’s attention by White Coat Waste Project, a watchdog group that originally obtained the documents outlining the USDA’s research. The protocol for the experiment — which was approved most recently in 2015 but dates back to 1982 — calls for the kittens to be fed Toxoplasma-infected raw meat so that their feces can be collected to harvest the parasites. At the end of the experiment, the kittens are killed.
One of the main questions Bishop posed in his letter is why the cats have to be killed rather than adopted. He wrote that the USDA protocol indicates that cats fed the infected meat do not typically become sick. And given that toxoplasmosis is treatable in cats, “why then, are the kittens being killed after two weeks rather than treated and adopted?” He also asked Perdue if the USDA has a policy or procedure to allow for the adoption of animals no longer being used for its research purposes.
For its part, the USDA said that the use of cats is “essential to the success of this critical research,” and claimed the estimate of 100 cats used in the research each year was a serious overestimation. Spokesperson Kim Kaplan claimed the cats cannot be adopted at the end of the research period because of the risks they could pose to adoptive families. “Women newly infected with Toxoplasma during pregnancy and anyone with a compromised immune system should be aware that toxoplasmosis can have severe consequences,” she wrote.
The USDA’s statement does not address all the points Bishop raised in his two-page letter, including whether the USDA is looking into alternative research methods that are more humane. The letter read: “USDA states that Toxoplasma oocysts cannot be produced in cell culture or any other animal species. Elsewhere, scientists have reported on work to develop technology to replace cat use. What efforts, if any, has the USDA engaged in to create more efficient and humane alternatives to the use of cats and other live animals for producing Toxoplasma oocysts?”
Bishop also questioned whether the current project will be renewed when it expires at the end of the month. “It appears this project uses kittens as test tubes,” the letter concluded. “Put simply, it creates life to destroy life. While I support the objective of making food safer and protecting people and animals from infectious disease, we must ensure taxpayer dollars are used effectively, efficiently, and humanely.”