Laboratory mice are animals, the U.S. government has decided, and their care should be regulated under animal-welfare laws. This week a federal judge is expected to accept an agreement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and animal-welfare advocates to regulate the use of mice, rats, and birds in scientific research. Furious, biomedical research groups are predicting that new rules will drive up research costs and prevent researchers at small colleges from experimenting on animals.
The controversy stems from a 1972 decision by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to exempt mice, rats, and birds from Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations that spell out everything from annual inspections to cage sizes. The policy exempts 95% of all experimental animals from the federal government's legal definition of "animal."
In 1997, the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, sued on behalf of an undergraduate student who claimed she suffered emotional and aesthetic harm from working with mistreated rats in a college psychology lab. This summer, after a judge ruled that the student had standing, USDA moved to negotiate an out-of-court settlement (Science, 21 July, p. 377).
The decision to negotiate alarmed biomedical research advocates, including the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. In a blizzard of faxes, they asked Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to intercede, arguing that researchers should not be frozen out of negotiations. Despite these protests, on 29 September USDA officials agreed to "initiate and complete a rulemaking on the regulation of birds, rats, and mice within a reasonable time."
Observers are divided over the practical impact of any new rules, which could take years to finalize. Animal-care experts say large breeders and research universities typically already meet widely used voluntary standards and other government requirements. But NABR has estimated that compliance could cost researchers $280 million or more and put smaller schools out of the animal research business. Research funds, says AAMC president Jordan Cohen, will be "frittered away on senseless and duplicative bureaucratic hoops that are driven by ideology and not reality."
If the judge signs off on an agreement, research groups may seek a statement from Congress on whether it intended to regulate mice, rats, and birds when it passed the AWA. Any final rule could also be challenged in court.
National Association of Biomedical Research