Researchers at the Agriculture Department have euthanized healthy kittens, ignored injured pigs and killed dozens of birds through neglect and starvation, government documents show.
The incidents, which took place at a dozen USDA laboratories during the course of 2017, have drawn new scrutiny to the agency’s research agenda — and its oversight of animal welfare standards.
At one federal lab, 32 quail chicks died after the temperature in their room spiked above 130 degrees, according to agency inspection reports reviewed by The Washington Post.
At another, kittens are routinely infected with toxoplasma, a parasite that poses risks to fetuses and pregnant women, and later euthanized, according to internal agency documents obtained by the White Coat Waste Project, a right-leaning advocacy group, and shared with The Post.
USDA, which operates 41 agricultural research labs, says it adheres to stringent animal welfare standards and conducts research that is critical to industry and to human health, adding in a statement that it “complies with best management practices in animal research.” But animal welfare groups are calling on Congress to increase oversight of animal research programs, citing outrage over the kitten trials and persistent violations at some USDA labs.
In total, government inspectors documented 16 animal welfare violations at 10 USDA facilities in 2017, according to agency reports. Agency records show some of the cited labs, including the Meat Animal Research Center (MARC), were also repeatedly flagged for problems during preliminary audits designed to help them prepare for inspectors.
“There are still very horrendous animal deaths and incidents taking place at USDA,” said Mimi Brody, the director of federal affairs at the Humane Society of the United States. “ ... Even if these are extreme cases, why are they happening?”
Such questions have plagued USDA since 2015, when a New York Times investigation exposed researchers who left animals to die of exposure and left basic injuries and wounds untreated. In the ensuing controversy, Congress required every lab in USDA's Agricultural Research Service to convene a committee on animal care and submit to regular, unannounced animal welfare inspections.
The majority of those inspections turn up clean. But some problems have persisted, the reports show.
At MARC, where government scientists are researching ways to improve beef cattle, swine and lamb production, inspectors visiting in July 2017 found that pigs, lambs and cows had visible wounds and injuries that had not been treated by a veterinarian.
Animals in a feedlot were breathing quickly and with their tongues hanging out, showing signs of heat distress. Some hogs bore scrapes and open wounds because caretakers had not separated them from more aggressive pigs.
“None of these animals were under treatment at the time of the inspection,” Debbie Cunningham, an agency inspector, wrote in her report. “Injuries that are not treated may be painful and can lead to prolonged suffering [and] infection … These animals must be examined by a veterinarian.”
That same month, at the Poisonous Plant Research Laboratory in Utah, 32 quail chicks died after a heating system failure caused the room temperature to spike above 130 degrees, inspection reports show. While many facilities automatically alert staff to sudden temperature changes, PPRL did not have such a system installed.
Meanwhile, at the Avian Disease and Oncology Laboratory in East Lansing, Mich., 15 ducks died after “multiple days without access to water.” At the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa, 38 turkeys dropped dead unexpectedly. A post-mortem examination found the turkeys had empty digestive tracts and shrunken intestines — two signs they weren’t getting enough to eat.
“It disgusts me, frankly,” said James Keen, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Veterinary Medicine who left MARC in 2014 after publicly denouncing the lab's animal welfare practices. “Starvation does not happen overnight, so this indicates chronic neglect and overt cruelty to animals. ... The findings indicate that animal care, animal health and animal welfare are just not a priority for USDA ARS.”
In addition to the official inspection violations, all four labs were cited for breaking animal welfare rules during pre-inspection audits, though a summary report obtained by The Post did not specify the violation. MARC was cited with 33 violations, and the other three facilities were each cited for seven.
Some congressional appropriators say they are concerned by the reports, which they began mandating in 2016.
“More than a year ago, the Agriculture Department Inspector General’s office publicly said that the Agricultural Research Service admitted it had not prioritized following its own policies on animal welfare,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “These reports demonstrate that this disturbing pattern has continued, which is appalling and unacceptable. Agency management must make a much better effort than they have so far to address these serious failures.”
Separately, and unrelated to the inspectors’ reports, several animal welfare groups raised concerns last week about a long-running project on toxoplasmosis at the Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory in Beltsville, Md. To obtain samples of toxoplasma for study, researchers feed kittens infected meat and harvest the parasite from their excrement, according to experiment protocol documents. The cats are then euthanized and incinerated.
While the humane euthanization of test animals is not a violation of federal animal welfare rules, critics claim toxoplasmosis is easily and cheaply cured in cats, and USDA could then give the animals up for adoption.
“The cats are perfectly healthy — USDA admits that in its reports,” said Justin Goodman, the vice president for advocacy and public policy at White Coat Waste. “The CDC says it’s perfectly safe to keep cats that have been treated for toxoplasmosis as pets. And USDA is killing them anyway.”
In a statement, a department spokesman defended USDA’s toxoplasmosis program and its larger track record on animal welfare, though the agency did not specifically address the recent violations found at USDA labs despite multiple requests for comment.
Scientists can only obtain the type of toxoplasma needed for these experiments from cats, said the spokesman, who spoke anonymously because it’s the policy of the department. The trials are a high priority because toxoplasmosis can cause severe eye and brain damage to unborn children, as well as some farm animals.
The kittens are not given up for adoption afterward because of concerns they could spread the parasite, he added — though there is little evidence that is a risk.
USDA “regularly inspects research animals and complies with best management practices in animal research,” the spokesman said.
But critics of USDA’s animal research say they still have questions for the agency: among them, why added oversight and funding has not prompted USDA to correct its animal welfare record. Keen, the former MARC veterinarian, said these issues don't only hurt animals — they can skew experiments and invalidate research.
On Friday, Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Mich.) and Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) introduced a bill that would prohibit USDA from using cats in any research that causes pain or stress. The Humane Society, meanwhile, has called on USDA to publish more inspection reports and take clear, public steps to correct documented problems.
The organization remains concerned, Brody said, that inspectors continue to find violations two years after mandatory animal welfare check began.
“When you’re seeing serious problems, you’re supposed to take steps to address them — not just duly note them,” Brody said. “From that perspective, this is an alarming trend.”