A nonprofit animal rights organization filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the U.S. Agriculture Department, seeking information about experiments during which thousands of cats have been euthanized at a facility in Maryland.
Earlier this year, the group released graphic documents obtained from the USDA that said about 100 cats are killed each year at a facility in Beltsville after being intentionally infected with a parasite that can cause toxoplasmosis. The disease, transmitted in contaminated meat, can cause miscarriages and birth defects in humans.
The cats’ feces are inspected for the parasite, and those that have been infected for two weeks are euthanized with a shot of ketamine to the heart, according to an “animal use protocol form” that explains the procedure.
“This work cannot be performed in any other species,” the form says, adding that the experiments seek “sources of Toxoplasma infection for humans and food animals . . . to plan control strategies, including development of a vaccine.”
“A total of 2,988 cats have been used in these research efforts that began in 1982,” USDA administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young wrote in a response to an inquiry from Congress in May.
In its suit, the White Coat Waste Project says the USDA is blocking a Freedom of Information Act request for information about the research and for veterinary records for all “cats and kittens” experimented on in Beltsville.
The group filed the request in June, the lawsuit said, but “never received any acknowledgment or response.”
“The USDA continues to wrongfully withhold the requested records,” the suit alleges.
An unsigned email from the USDA’s press account — received in response to a request for comment — read, “USDA cannot comment on pending litigation.”
Justin Goodman, the White Coat Waste Project’s vice president for advocacy and public policy, said the USDA is using cats for studies that it can do without living animals.
“It’s institutional inertia and laziness,” he said.
Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.), a co-sponsor of the “Kitten Act,” which would limit experiments on cats, said this was testing that “only a government bureaucrat could have come up with in the first place.”
“This has been going on for half a century,” he said. “It’s time to bring this type of practice to an end. The basic details of kitten testing have been hidden.”
Toxoplasmosis is a leading cause of death from foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 40 million people in the United States carry the parasite that causes it, but many never show symptoms.
Correction: This story has been changed to reflect that Toxoplasmosis is a leading cause of death from foodborne illness, not the leading cause of death from foodborne illness.