50 years later, animal welfare act is a work in progress

Law reflects ever-evolving public sentiment on animal welfare
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President Lyndon Johnson made history when, on Aug. 24, 1966, against a backdrop of civil unrest, he signed the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act, thereby enacting the first federal law protecting the welfare of animals used for scientific research. The new law—renamed the Animal Welfare Act in 1970—also cracked down on the stolen-pet trade by regulating animal dealers and the laboratories they supplied.

Various domestic and wild animals

Originally, the AWA charged the Department of Agriculture with setting minimum standards of care and use for laboratory animals. Over the years, Congress has refined those welfare standards while extending coverage to animals outside the laboratory.

“Five decades after passage of the AWA, our goal—the advancement of animal welfare—remains the same, but Animal Care’s job has expanded to encompass and protect even more animals,” said Bernadette Juarez, deputy administrator of Animal Care, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service program that enforces the welfare law.

“As it stands, we are responsible for the health and welfare of animals used for commercial breeding, public exhibition, transported commercially, and, of course, used for research,” Juarez continued. “The AWA also prohibits animal fighting, which has been heavily relied upon over the past decade to successfully prosecute animal fighting ventures involving dogs and birds.”

The APHIS program employs roughly 50 inspectors and 80 veterinary medical officers, including supervisors and specialists, who support day-to-day inspection activities, according to Juarez. Animal Care conducted some 10,000 inspections in FY 2015, and she anticipates conducting a similar number of inspections in FY 2016.

Rabbit inspection
Laboratory rabbits are inspected by an Animal Care veterinary medical officer. (Photos by R. Anson Eaglin/USDA APHIS)

The AWA is not, however, without its critics, who argue its protections are too limited. For instance, rats of the genus Rattus and mice of the genus Mus, which constitute most animals used in scientific research, are exempt from the welfare regulations, as are animals used for food and fiber.

Animal welfare laws are “dynamic,” explained Juarez, a lawyer, and the federal law will continue to evolve with public opinion and as animal health, welfare, and behavior are better understood. “The AWA generally garners bipartisan support,” she explained, “and as a public administrator of the law, my goal is to focus on the common ground that exists among stakeholders with diverse views, and use that common ground to continuously improve our Animal Care program.”

The first national law to regulate animal experimentation was the Cruelty to Animals Act passed in Britain in 1876. Efforts to pass similar legislation at the federal level in the United States had been successfully blocked by the biomedical research community, which argued animal experimentation was a necessity and the imposition of any regulations would hinder scientific discovery.

Congress mostly agreed with that view, that is, until the Nov. 29, 1965, issue of Sports Illustrated featured an article about Pepper, a Dalmatian stolen by a dog dealer from a Pennsylvania family who discovered their pet had been sold to a New York City hospital and euthanized during an experiment. The episode prompted New York Rep. Joseph Resnick to sponsor a House bill that would require dog and cat dealers, and the laboratories that purchased the animals, to be licensed and inspected by the USDA, which would also institute minimum standards of care and treatment for laboratory animals. Similar legislation was introduced in the Senate.

Animal welfare is a dynamic area of the law that will continue to evolve as the body of science grows with respect to animal health, welfare, and behavior, and as the public’s view on the importance of good animal welfare continues to develop.

Bernadette Juarez, deputy administrator of Animal Care, USDA APHIS

Then in 1966, as hearings were being held on the House bill, Life magazine published “Concentration Camp for Dogs,” a photo essay showing the inhumane conditions at a Maryland dog dealer’s farm. The article not only generated more letters to Life than any of the previous Vietnam or civil rights stories but also prompted Congress to pass the laboratory animal welfare bill, sending it on to President Johnson.

Veterinarians were managing laboratory animal colonies at a small number of research facilities for decades prior to passage of the AWA. In 1915, the Mayo Clinic had become the first U.S. institution to have a veterinarian overseeing its laboratory animals.

Passage of the AWA meant veterinary oversight was no longer optional for many institutions, as the law mandated “adequate veterinary care” be provided for some species of laboratory animals kept under certain conditions. Laboratories had to register with the USDA as well as form an oversight committee with at least one veterinarian member. The committee would regularly assess animal treatment, practices, and care during ongoing research and examine the animal study areas twice a year.

The American Society for Laboratory Animal Practitioners was formed a little more than a month after the AWA was enacted to help train and educate the veterinarians needed by the hundreds of newly registered facilities, according to Dr. William Stokes, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service and the ASLAP delegate in the AVMA House of Delegates.

Dog-breeding facility inspection
An Animal Care inspector examines outdoor pens during a routine inspection of a USDA-licensed dog-breeding facility.

Dr. Stokes is currently assistant director for animal welfare operations in Animal Care. Veterinarians, he said, have made substantial contributions to animal welfare and the ethical evolution of animal experimentation through the establishment and leadership of various organizations such as ASLAP along with the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine, American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, and Institute for Laboratory Animal Research at the National Academy of Sciences.

The greatest impact on laboratory animal welfare, Dr. Stokes suggested, came when the U.S. Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Used in Testing, Research, and Training were adopted in May 1985, and then were effectively implemented into the law with the December 1985 amendment to the AWA and the Health Research Extension Act of 1985. These new laws required the establishment of institutional animal care and use committees to oversee animal care facilities and programs, and to review and approve all proposed animal research activities covered by the AWA and Public Health Service Policy.

“This has led to careful ethical consideration of animals before they are used, including careful review to ensure that pain and distress are minimized or avoided,” Dr. Stokes said.

Juarez has no doubts that the welfare of those animals covered by the AWA has improved as a result of the law. “During my roughly 14-year tenure with the USDA, I’ve observed improvement in the care and welfare of elephants and dogs in particular, the safe and humane handling of animals, and assessment of whether licensing applicants are fit to hold an AWA license,” she said.

“In the last few years alone, we closed an unintended loophole in the AWA that had allowed breeders to sell animals sight unseen over the internet without being licensed,” Juarez said. “In April of this year, we issued a new policy statement to promote the humane handling of newborn exotic cats, such as tigers and lions.”

She added that Animal Care recently issued two proposed rules, one promoting standards of care for captive marine mammals, the other establishing licensing exemptions under certain conditions to allow the program to direct its inspection and enforcement resources toward licensed businesses that aren’t complying with AWA standards.

Related JAVMA content:

Lawmakers seek expansion of animal welfare regulations (April 1, 2015)

AVMA supports bills on horse trailers, research (Jan. 15, 2014)