The Creatures Formerly Known as AnimalsApril 17th, 2005
Congressional critics had a field day a few years ago, when the leader of the Western world was caught quibbling over the definition of "is." But it turns out President Clinton had nothing on Congress, which recently decreed that birds, rats and mice are not animals.
Without discussion or debate, Congress wrote into federal law the highly debatable position of the U.S. Agriculture Department, which for decades has insisted that these small fauna — the subjects of 95 percent of all research experiments conducted in the U.S. — fail to qualify for protection under the Animal Welfare Act.
And since the Act is the only U.S. law that promised even minimal protection for the millions of animals used annually in research, the welfare of these "ex-animals" is in the hands of the biomedical industry, which is largely free to treat — or mistreat — them as it chooses.
"If you eliminate 95 percent of the animals out there in labs, then you eliminate 95 percent of the inspections you would otherwise have to do. It's a way to save money and avoid doing your job," says ALDF founder and general counsel Joyce Tischler. "As originally written, AWA didn't exempt rats, mice and birds. USDA decided to do that."
In 1990, ALDF decided to do something about it, petitioning the USDA to amend its regulations to include birds, rats and mice. When the agency refused, ALDF sued. In 1992, a district court judge ruled in ALDF's favor, finding that the USDA was in violation of the Animal Welfare Act. But a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling reversed that decision in 1994 on the grounds that ALDF's plaintiffs lacked standing.
A few years later, the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation revived the challenge with a new plaintiff, a psychology student who had personally witnessed laboratory abuses. With ALDF's assistance, including pleadings from the earlier court battle, ARDF forced the USDA to concede. At long last, the federal agency agreed to amend its regulations and give birds, rats and mice the AWA protection they deserved.
But before the new rules could go into effect — and at the behest of the powerful biomedical research industry — Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) stepped in. His amendment to the 2002 Farm Bill aimed to elevate the birds/rats/mice exemption from departmental policy to federal law, and trump the USDA's reluctant movement toward finally enforcing the Animal Welfare Act.
The ploy worked. When the massive Farm Bill was signed by President Bush in May, the never-debated Helms amendment became U.S. law — and the Animal Welfare Act was dealt a crippling blow. The defeat left some animal advocates asking hard questions about how the movement's energies are best spent.
"It makes me wary of what a sinkhole of effort working on legislation can be," says David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University's Detroit College of Law and an ALDF board member. "I think we can get more done through the courts. There, it's more of a rational, intellectual argument as opposed to down and dirty politics."