Members of Congress are used to being lobbied creatively, but House and Senate
conferees hammering out this year's farm bill received especially memorable packages
yesterday morning: A videocassette featuring gruesome footage of laboratory mice
and rats being experimented upon.
The film was taken by a spy who infiltrated a University of North Carolina animal research facility with a hidden camera and documented apparent violations of federal animal-care guidelines.
The video was shot by a 24-year-old technician who worked at the university
for six months undercover for People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA is one of several groups trying
to kill a farm bill amendment, introduced by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), that would
keep rats, mice and birds from coming under the protections of the the Animal
Welfare Act. Helms and others have claimed that rodents and birds are adequately
protected by other federal and institutional rules.
The video seeks to undercut that assurance. In one scene, a researcher cuts open the skulls of squirming baby rats to remove their brains without first numbing the animals in a bucket of ice -- a shortcut that the researcher concedes on tape is a violation of the experimental protocol. "I don't put them to sleep," he tells the undercover technician. "Maybe it's illegal, but it's easier."
In several scenes, the PETA spy finds live rodents in a discard bin, apparently having survived incomplete euthanasia efforts. Lab workers can be heard on the tape saying it happens frequently, even though researchers are supposed to confirm that animals are dead before tossing them out.
The tape also suggests that veterinary care may have been inadequate, with moribund animals being left to die slowly despite federal and institutional guidelines that call for such animals to be euthanized.
PETA's covert operation marks the latest twist in a decade-long battle between scientists and laboratory animal activists over the use of rats, mice and birds in research. The Animal Welfare Act, which since 1971 has been the keystone statute regarding the use and care of lab animals, requires the Department of Agriculture to promulgate rules for the handling of all warm-blooded research animals. But the USDA has never done so for rodents or birds, saying such regulation would be burdensome and expensive and could stymie important biomedical research. More than 20 million of the animals are used annually in U.S. labs, accounting for 95 percent of all research animals.
Facing a lawsuit by activists that the agency was widely predicted to lose, the USDA in October 2000 agreed to start a rulemaking process covering rodents and birds. But the agency has yet to release draft wording. None will be needed if Helms's amendment, which would permanently exempt those animals from the AWA, survives conference discussions now underway.
Research advocates were seething yesterday about PETA's secret taping.
"I think it's abhorrent that they use illegal tactics to affect public policy. They should work within the system," said Frankie L. Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research. Trull said the National Institutes of Health, animal-care committees at research institutions and a national system of accreditation already ensure good care for rodents.
PETA yesterday released copies of written exchanges between the undercover employee and UNC officials, in which the employee noted problems and the officials promised remedies.
But correctional efforts were "woefully inadequate," said Mary Beth Sweetwater, PETA's director for research and investigations. By contrast, she said, "if the USDA could slap them with fines and inspection reports, then you've got some clout behind you."
Tony G. Waldrop, UNC's vice chancellor for research, said the university was in "full compliance" with NIH and other relevant guidelines, but he promised a full investigation. "We don't have things to hide," he said.
Helms could not be reached for comment.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company