In Brief

New legislation will ensure laboratory research with rats, mice and birds is excluded from redundant federal regulations that could have hampered biomedical and behavioral research with laboratory animals.

In a short provision of the 2002 Farm Bill signed into law on May 13, laboratory rats, mice and birds were explicitly excluded from the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

The law ends a longstanding debate among researchers and animal-rights groups over whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should regulate certain species of rodents and birds bred for research purposes.

Animal-rights advocates argued that the 1966 AWA, which charges USDA to administer a variety of animal protection laws, was intended to cover rodents and birds used in research.

Research groups contended that rats, mice and birds--which make up about 95 percent of nonhuman animals used in laboratory research--already receive ample oversight through the National Institutes of Health, the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, and local institutional animal care and use committees. Moreover, they claimed USDA's regulation of rodents and birds would have prohibitively increased the cost of routine animal care and maintenance without any effective change in laboratory animal care and treatment.

Animal-rights groups countered that USDA should oversee the laboratory animals' use because existing protections have no legal force and do not cover 100 percent of rodents and birds.

In a 2000 lawsuit settlement with animal-rights and anti-animal research groups, USDA had agreed to consider including laboratory rodents and birds under its regulations. However, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) took steps to negate the settlement in February by inserting a brief clause into the Senate's version of the Farm Bill specifying the animals were exempt from the AWA. Because USDA is charged only with carrying out AWA's provisions, the measure's exemption meant the department would have no legal basis to regulate the animals' use.

Since there was no equivalent to the Helms amendment in the House version, the House and Senate conference committee had to decide whether to keep the measure. After input from animal-rights and research advocates, the committee decided to include the amendment in the final bill.

"It is gratifying that Congress acted to protect laboratory animal endeavors, which, along with concern for the animals' well-being, enjoy strong public support," says Nancy Dess, PhD, an APA Fellow and professor at Occidental College who works with laboratory rats. "Humane treatment of laboratory animals is essential to good science and education, and is the right thing to do. The research community works hard at ensuring it and must continue to do so."