Revelations about animal suffering at a federal animal research facility have sure gotten the attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
They've also prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the facility through its Agricultural Research Service, to name its first ever animal welfare ombudsman — as well as review and update its animal welfare strategy.
- An experiment where pigs died after being locked in steam chambers. The goal of this taxpayer-funded study was to evaluate how varying temperatures influenced the pigs' appetites.
- A study that left lambs abandoned by their mothers in pastures to die of exposure or starvation.
- An account of the fetuses of 119 pigs being "gently crushed" during an experiment. According to the Times, "the aim was to see if empty space in the uterus affected the intervals between pregnancies. But trial results, published in 2011, were inconclusive."
Animal rights activists were outraged by these and other activities at the center over the last few decades. "An American Horror Story" is how Matthew Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), dubbed it.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York, expressed alarm as well. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Slaughter wrote: "Such heinous examples of egregious cruelty, which would violate the minimum standards of any approved research protocol ... should not occur anywhere for any reason."
As the Times report points out, farm animals used in agricultural research are exempt from protections spelled out in the Animal Welfare Act. Many institutions, including universities and companies, that conduct research on animals abide by independent animal-welfare protocols. But the federal law has big loopholes, according to animal welfare advocates.
Slaughter is hoping to change the law. This week Slaughter, along with a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, introduced a bill known as the Animal Welfare in Agricultural Research Endeavors (AWARE) Act. It aims to end exemptions from protections under the Animal Welfare Act for farm animals used in agricultural experiments at federal facilities.
One of the co-sponsors of the legislation, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, said in a statement: "As stewards of taxpayer dollars, we felt a responsibility to present a legislative fix that holds the USDA to the same humane standards that countless research facilities across the country are held to."
The USDA issued a statement this week saying it is "taking action to ensure animals are respected and treated humanely."
Catherine Woteki, undersecretary for research, education and economics at USDA, added in a statement that "two of the research projects featured in the Times article had already been terminated," and "some of the specific incidents described were from many years or decades ago."
The statement went on to say that Vilsack has ordered a review of research practices at the Nebraska center and other USDA research facilities. The agency says reviewers will provide recommendations to strengthen the procedures for humane handling of animals.
Perhaps the strongest sign of growing accountability over animal welfare at the agency is the appointment of the agency's first animal welfare ombudsman. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the administrator of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, informally named Eileen Thacker — an ARS veterinarian — to the post. She announced the appointment in an email to ARS staff.
In the email to her staff, Jacobs-Young wrote, "Please remember we all own the responsibility for animal welfare; if you see something that disturbs you, please report it."
The email also announced the development of an updated animal welfare strategy within 60 days.