When people think of laboratory animals, many envision stereotypical mice or rats that have been genetically engineered to glow in the dark or the curiosity to explore some other new scientific advancement. While the ethics of using such creatures for scientific studies is a debated issue, most are opposed to the use of animals such as puppies and kittens for such research. Unbeknownst to the general public, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service has been conducting research on the parasite Toxoplasma gondii through the use, and frequent murder, of thousands of cats and kittens since the 1980s. This practice has been terminated as of March 27, 2019, but still poses many questions about transparency in laboratory research practices, how taxpayer dollars are being consumed and ethics in the treatment of animals.
While the actions of the USDA were widely unknown for years, the White Coat Waste Project, an organization that strives to end taxpayer-funded animal studies, released two reports over the last year that resulted in public outrage. The first report revealed that the Agricultural Research Service was breeding kittens for the sole purpose of infecting them with Toxoplasma gondii in order to harvest oocysts, an early stage of the parasite’s life cycle. After these parasites were removed from the kittens’ feces, they were killed.
According to Justin Goodman, the vice president of the White Coat Waste Project, cats “become immune after two weeks, and still the USDA was incinerating them”. Goodman approximates that more than 3,000 cats have been killed throughout the course of the research, costing taxpayers about 22 million dollars.
More than 40 million people in the United States carry Toxoplasma gondii in their bodies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The majority of people infected do not display symptoms, however, the parasite can cause serious flu-like symptoms and occasionally death in people with compromised immune systems, such as individuals undergoing chemotherapy. In addition, pregnant women infected with the parasite can pass it on to their offspring, causing serious complications such as hearing and vision problems, intellectual disabilities, seizures and miscarriage, especially if the woman is in the first trimester. The CDC calls toxoplasmosis the “leading cause of death attributed to foodborne illness” in the United States.
However, while toxoplasmosis presents a serious risk to health, it is important to also consider the ethics of research practices and prevent needless cruelty such as the murder of cats after they are infected. While a certain degree of research on animals may be necessary to uncover scientific principles that will save human lives, these objectives must be met while respecting the dignity of all life.
In addition to killing cats and kittens in the U.S., the White Coat Waste Project released a report that detailed the USDA’s practices overseas. The Agricultural Research Service has purchased hundreds of cats and dogs from shelters and meat markets in other countries. These animals are then killed and fed to cats involved in U.S. research studies to identify the presence of toxoplasmosis across the globe, a practice that Justin Goodman refers to as “kitten cannibalism”. This is a blatant waste of life considering the ability to test the original animals for the infection. It also exposes the United States’ hypocrisy, considering a House resolution last year that urged other countries to ban the practice of eating animals that commonly serve as house pets in the U.S. This demand condemned overseas markets in Asia, where some of the cats and dogs used in the USDA’s study were purchased.
While the remaining kittens from the study are being adopted into new homes, it is vital that all citizens regard the USDA’s practices as an important lesson. We must advocate for transparency in research practices, actions of federal executive departments, and where our taxpayer money is truly going. Before we can combat issues of ethics and animal rights, we must know when such abuses of life are happening. Without this information, our voices will not be able to demand progress, and the voiceless will suffer.
Kate Lee is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at Katherine.email@example.com.