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USDA is turning lab cats into cannibals by forcing them to eat feline meat, watchdog says

A cat and her kittens in this undated file photo. (The Washington Humane Society Animal Shelter) (Sarah L. Voisin)

Government scientists fed lab cats the meat of other cats and dogs, purchased in markets overseas, according to a report from an advocacy organization devoted to eliminating wasteful spending in research.

The organization alleges that the lab cats, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture houses at a facility in Beltsville, Md., were fed tongues, brains and hearts of cats purchased in at a meat market in China. Dogs purchased from shelters in Colombia and Brazil were killed, the report claims; then their brains, tongues and hearts were fed to the research cats. The goal was to study the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which causes toxoplasmosis, a flulike disease that can infect humans for weeks or months.

“That the USDA could, for over a decade, use taxpayers’ money to go around the world rounding up hundreds of kittens and puppies, killing them, and feeding their brains to cats for useless experiments highlights the disturbing lack of accountability and transparency at the agency,” said Justin Goodman, the vice president for advocacy and public policy at the White Coat Waste Project, which released the study with former USDA scientist Jim Keen.

Goodman called the practice “kitten cannibalism.”

James-Denton Wyllie, a spokesman for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) at the USDA, declined to comment on allegations that the agency feeds cats in its care the meat of other cats and dogs. He said in a statement that the service “continues to assess our operations on how to better conduct toxoplasmosis research.”

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The White Coat Waste Project’s goal is to eliminate taxpayer-funded animal testing. The organization was founded by Anthony Bellotti, a former Republican strategist who worked on campaigns against Obamacare, Planned Parenthood and legalized same-sex marriage in California, according to Science magazine and the pro-animal research website Speaking Of Research. The White Coat Waste Project made an early appearance in a 2015 documentary directed by Glenn Beck called “Socialized Science,” the magazine reported.

The report notes that some of the cats and dogs had been purchased from overseas markets that were condemned in a resolution in the House last year, which urged other countries, specifically in Asia, to ban the consumption of animals commonly kept as pets in the United States. In 2017, Taiwan made it illegal to slaughter dogs and cats for human consumption.

“Yet, USDA has been using Americans’ tax dollars to subsidize this despicable industry and help it stay afloat,” the White Coat Waste Project’s release said.

“DEEPLY disturbing that USDA has been purchasing cats and dogs from notoriously inhumane meat markets in Asia, then feeding the meat to animals they’re experimenting on,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, (D-Ore.) wrote on Twitter. “We can advance scientific discovery while treating animals humanely.”

Keen, who is now an academic but said he does work for the White Coat Waste Project voluntarily, said in a phone interview that he found the details about cats being fed cats and dogs by scouring research papers published by the USDA and affiliated departments.

“We just thought we’d find routine experiments,” he said. “We never knew this other stuff was going on.”

Goodman said the feedings occurred between 2003 and 2014.

“For all we know, it could still be happening,” he said. “There’s a disturbing lack of transparency for that project.”

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The report does note that the ARS told Congress it was working toward a method to get the parasite eggs without the use of research cats but said that “at this time, there is no way to do this.”

Wyllie declined to answer other questions about the allegations made in the report but said, “We remain committed to the strictest adherence to ethical standards and the best management practices.”

The practice of eating dogs and even cats in some countries has drawn more scrutiny in recent years, with a spotlight trained on events such as a dog meat festival in Yulin, China.

“Activists say the dog meat trade is inhumane and unhygienic, pointing to videos of dogs caught with wire lassos, transported in tiny cages and slaughtered with metal rods,” Reuters notes in an article about the festival.

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The USDA and the ARS have conducted toxoplasmosis-related experiments on cats since 1982, the report notes. The parasite, one of the world’s most common and a leading cause of death from foodborne illness, is often transferred through contact with cat feces by pet owners. It typically presents a serious health risk only for people with compromised immune systems.

About 100 kittens are bred each year for research at the Animal Parasitic Disease Laboratory, the report claimed, and many are intentionally infected with the parasite in their food so scientists can harvest the parasite’s eggs for research. (The USDA told WJLA that 30-76 cats were killed every year from 2013 to 2017.) The kittens are killed and incinerated by the USDA after they stop being used for research, the report says; about 4,000 cats have been killed as part of the project over the more than 35 years its been in existence.

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The White Coat Waste Project and Keen say that they concluded that the use of cats and their killings for the experiments is unnecessary and unjustifiable.

Science magazine says the group won’t go after “untold millions of mice, rats, and even dogs owned by pharmaceutical companies, biotech corporations, and other industry labs."

“If we start going after the private sector, some of our supporters may have a problem with that,” Bellotti told the magazine.

Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the ARS’s administrator, wrote to Congress in 2018 to say that putting the cats up for adoption would present a public-health risk, a point that the report’s authors challenge.

The White Coat Waste Project has been taking aim at the cat testing program for months, including a lawsuit it filed last year against the USDA that claimed the agency was blocking Freedom of Information Act requests for information about the cats experimented on in Beltsville. Bills to end the killing of kittens at the lab, called the KITTEN Act, were introduced in Congress by then-Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Mich.) and Merkley last year. And they were reintroduced this year as well, but no action has been taken on them.

Some conservative groups, including the Family Research Council, have used the bill to argue that Democrats are hypocrites for their support for abortion rights.

Keen said he doesn’t think the methodologies of the toxoplasmosis research would ever have been approved outside of the world of government.

“This is intramural research — not peer-reviewed, it’s not competitive,” he said. “I’d be really surprised if this type of research would be approved by regulations at other institutions.”

Justin Wm. Moyer contributed to this report.

Correction, March 19: An earlier version of this report erroneously gave the year a documentary produced by Glenn Beck was released. Socialized Science was released in 2015 not 2013.

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