The Animal Welfare Act
The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is the federal law that governs the
humane care, handling, treatment, and transportation of animals used
in laboratories. Contrary to popular belief, it does not prohibit any
experiment, no matter how painful or useless; it simply sets minimum
housing and maintenance standards for confined animals.
The Animal Welfare Act act also covers dealers who sell animals to
laboratories, animal exhibitors, carriers, and intermediate handlers,
dog and cat breeders, puppy mills, zoos, circuses, roadside menageries,
and transporters of animals.
However, it specifically excludes retail pet stores, state and county fairs,
livestock shows, rodeos, purebred dog and cat shows, and "fairs and
exhibitions intended to advance agricultural arts and sciences."
Fines and/or terms of imprisonment are listed as penalties for
violations of the act.
Species covered by the Animal Welfare Act
Technically, the act covers any "live or dead dog, cat, nonhuman primate,
guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or any other warm-blooded animal, which
(sic) is being used, or is intended for use for research, teaching,
testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes."
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
interprets the act to exclude birds, rats, and mice bred for research,
and horses and other farm animals, such as livestock and poultry,
used or intended for use as food or fiber. Horses and other farm
animals are covered if they are used in experiments, but equines
are now specifically denied coverage if they are used in entertainment
events such as rodeo or mule-diving.
Although a 1992 court decision stated that the secretary of agriculture's
exclusion of birds, rats, and mice from coverage was "arbitrary and
capricious," meaning the judge could not understand why the USDA
would not protect these vulnerable animals who make up about 90%
of the animals used in laboratories, this ruling is being appealed by the USDA.
The act also, by definition, excludes cold-blooded animals. This is
not only arbitrary, since many cold-blooded species are used in
research and exhibition, but appalling when one considers that
it allows the cruelest of situations to be imposed on these sentient
beings (such as forcing giant turtles--who are normally very shy--to
give children rides).
Regulations of the Federal Animal Welfare Act
Standards have been written specifying the minimum requirements
for handling, care, housing, treatment, transportation, feeding, watering,
sanitation, ventilation, lighting, shelter, veterinary care, and separation
by species. In most cases though, the act does not clearly define
For example, under "space requirements," it states: "sufficient space to
allow each animal to make normal postural and social adjustments
with adequate freedom of movement." It is often the case that the
"minimum" required becomes the maximum provided.
There are no regulations whatsoever that specifically govern the conduct
of an experiment, or what the animals will be forced to endure during
an experiment. As an example, the act actually allows the withholding
of anesthetics whenever "scientifically necessary," which means that
if an experimenter says that anesthesia will interfere with the results
of the experiment, then the animal is not given any.
One of the provisions of the 1985 amendments requires periodic
inspections of animal research laboratories by an institutional committee.
Each committee must have at least three members, and "at least one
shall not be affiliated in any way with the facility."
This member is supposed to "provide representation for
general community interests in the proper care and treatment of animals,"
but there is no guarantee that this person will be from a humane
organization. In fact, most such committees simply "rubber-stamp"
the experimenters' work without performing a critical evaluation, and
the outside member is chosen from among people known to support
animal experiments and whose views do not reflect even basic
animal welfare concerns.
In 1993, a federal judge struck down USDA regulations allowing
research facilities to make their own plans to meet Animal Welfare
Act requirements, finding that the rules violated the law by giving
regulated parties the final say in how the AWA should be interpreted.
The judge also criticized the government for taking nine years to
implement the rules and strongly suggested that they had been written
with more concern for the profitability of research than for the proper
care of animals.(1) After a nine-month delay, the Clinton administration
indicated that it would appeal the ruling.(2)
All Bark, No Bite
The Animal Welfare Act has the potential to improve the living conditions
for animals held captive in laboratories, exploited in exhibits, and
warehoused in breeding facilities. The responsibility for enforcing the
act lies with a division of the USDA known as APHIS, the Animal
and Plant Health Inspection Service. There are five APHIS sector
offices with approximately 85 veterinary inspectors who are supposed
to inspect, unannounced, the various types of facilities covered by the act.
However, budgetary constraints and strong opposition from animal
breeders, pharmaceutical companies, exhibitors, and experimenters
themselves, as well as an inadequate number of inspectors, have resulted
in poor enforcement of the act.
There are nearly 1,500 research facilities in the U.S., as well as more
than 1,800 exhibitors and 4,400 dealers who are supposed to be
inspected each year. This means that 85 inspectors have to cover nearly
8,000 facilities nationwide. In a March 1992 audit by the USDA's
own Office of the Inspector General, it was determined that "APHIS
cannot ensure the humane care and treatment of animals at all dealer
facilities as required by the act. APHIS did not inspect facilities with
reliable frequency, and it did not enforce timely corrections of violations
found during inspections." Out of 284 facilities examined in the audit,
46 had received no annual inspection, and out of 156 that were in
violation of the law, 126 of these had had no follow-up inspections.
What you can do
Write to your representatives in Congress and ask that they support
any pending or future legislation that will increase funding and/or
strengthen the USDA's ability to enforce the AWA.
If you believe you have witnessed violations of the Animal Welfare
Act, please write to the Deputy Administrator, USDA, APHIS,
REAC, Federal Building, 6505 Belcrest Rd., Rm. 208, Hyattsville,
(All quotations taken from the Animal Welfare Act as published by
the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department
Labaton, Stephanie, "Animal Advocates Win Court Ruling," New York
Times, Feb. 26, 1993. "Washington Update," Chronicle of Higher
Education, Dec. 8, 1993.
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