Beltsville, MD — Rep. Mike Bishop, a Republican representing Michigan’s 8th District, exposed a program in May, as TFTP reported, that he calls "secretive and problematic" within the U.S. Department of Agriculture in which thousands of kittens are being incinerated in Maryland. Now, four months later, a lawsuit is claiming the USDA is blocking the release of information on the death of these kittens.
The lawsuit, filed by the watchdog group, White Coat Waste Project, says the government-funded Animal Parasitic Disease Lab in Beltsville, Maryland, has euthanized thousands of healthy kittens after putting them through experiments related to food-borne illnesses in humans.
“They kept this project a secret for virtually 50 years and have been fighting tooth and nail [not] to release details about it. We are not going to let them go dark again,” said Justin Goodman, the White Coat Waste Project’s vice president.
According to the USDA, the breeding and subsequent mass killing of kittens is essential to understanding and combating a dangerous parasite. However, citing inhumane procedures and wasted taxpayer funds, min May Bishop called for an official investigation into the program.
Bishop sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue citing his and other's concerns on how the kitten are being used in the program.
The secret experiments were initially brought to light after a Freedom of Information Act request was filed by White Coat Waste Project.
According to Bishop, the experiments involve breeding hundreds of kittens, feeding them parasite infected raw meet for several weeks and then burning them. The kittens are essentially test tubes as they are only bred so that their feces can be used in later experiments.
“A total of 2,988 cats have been used in these research efforts that began in 1982,” USDA administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young wrote in a response to an inquiry from Congress in May, according to the Washington Post.
“I’m shocked and disturbed that for decades the USDA — the very organization charged with enforcing animal welfare laws — has been unnecessarily killing hundreds of kittens in expensive and inefficient lab experiments,” Bishop said in a statement.
“Any government research program like this one that’s been funded since the Nixon administration needs to be put under the microscope, especially when it involves using kittens as disposable test tubes in harmful tests that most taxpayers oppose.”
According to Bishop, the USDA protocol indicates that the cats who are fed the infected meat do not become sick. Bishop's letter demands to know the cost to the taxpayer, the precise number of kittens used, pain reporting to see how bad the kittens are suffering, and alternatives to using kittens and possible adoption procedures.
"It appears that this project uses kittens as test tubes," Bishop wrote. "Put simply, it creates life to destroy life. While I support the objective of making food safer and protecting people and animals from infectious diseases, we must ensure taxpayer dollars are used effectively, efficiently, and humanely.”
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After receiving the letter, Kim Kaplan of the USDA responded by claiming that the use of cats is “essential to the success of this critical research,” and that “the estimate of 100 cats used in the research … is a serious overestimation.”
Kaplan also explained that the cats cannot be adopted out because even though they may not be infected they still pose a risk to others through their fecal matter.
However, expert authorities–including the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–agree that the Toxoplasma-exposed cats are safe and adoptable because after just one Toxoplasma exposure, cats shed the parasite, become immune and won’t transmit to humans or other animals, according to the White Coat Waste Project.
As to why they use kittens, the USDA explained, "only cats are found to excrete the environmentally resistant stage of the parasite."
In regard to the incineration of kittens, cost to taxpayers, and pain reporting, however, the USDA is mostly choosing to remain silent, only stating that the lab “complies with best management practices in animal research.”
Naturally, no one wants to ingest harmful parasites and get sick and the research likely provides some benefit in this regard. However, the length of time that it has been going on indicates that the research is either ineffective or the program is merely trying to justify its funding by continuing experiments.
According to Bishop, the research has been ongoing at the USDA since 1982, and at 100 kittens a year, the death toll is staggering.
As the WCWP points out, these deadly, decades-old taxpayer-funded kitten experiments also continue despite criticism from veterinary experts who call the kitten model “difficult and expensive,” say it raises “ethical concerns,” and are advocating for development on in vitro models.
Adding to the already ominous nature of breeding cats to kill them is the fact that the parasite Toxoplasma they are studying has been shown to be able to manipulate its hosts—including humans—as in controlling their behavior.
This is not some conspiracy theory either. In fact, the NY Times published an article on these effects only four years ago.
One reason for Toxoplasma’s success is its ability to manipulate its hosts. The parasite can influence their behavior, so much so that hosts can put themselves at risk of death. Scientists first discovered this strange mind control in the 1990s, but it’s been hard to figure out how they manage it. Now a new study suggests that Toxoplasma can turn its host’s genes on and off — and it’s possible other parasites use this strategy, too.
Toxoplasma manipulates its hosts to complete its life cycle. Although it can infect any mammal or bird, it can reproduce only inside of a cat. The parasites produce cysts that get passed out of the cat with its feces; once in the soil, the cysts infect new hosts.
If this was a private corporation doing this exact same thing, the USDA would likely be stepping in to stop it. However, because they are the government, they can do as they wish and keep it secret.