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Lab animals used for research by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have a new lease on life.
A recent policy change by the federal agency now permits the adoption, transfer and retirement of healthy animals to shelters and sanctuaries after they’ve been involved in lab experiments. Animals were previously euthanized after being used in experiments.
The policy took effect in November, according to documents obtained by The Hill, but had not been previously disclosed by the FDA.
“The FDA has an internal policy for the placement of research animals after study completion that has not been made public,” Monique Richards, an agency spokeswoman, told The Hill.
Species affected by the rule change include common pets such as dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs, as well as some farm animals.
The move follows similar actions taken by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and was praised by lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are pushing for legislation to protect lab animals used in federal research.
“There is no reason why regulated research animals that are suitable for adoption or retirement should be killed by our federal agencies,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement to The Hill. “I’m pleased that the FDA has joined the NIH and VA in enacting a lab animal retirement policy.”
Collins introduced the Animal Freedom from Testing, Experiments and Research (AFTER) Act in 2019. The bipartisan measure has eight co-sponsors, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), but has not advanced out of committee.
The legislation, which has a companion bill in the House, would require federal laboratories to place certain animals in rescue shelters and retirement sanctuaries after experimentation and research studies are completed.
"For years, I’ve worked to end outdated government animal testing opposed by most Americans, and have been disturbed at how many animals are killed at the end of research even though there are individuals, rescues, and sanctuaries ready to take them in,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), sponsor of the House measure, said in a statement. “Having introduced the AFTER Act to require federal agencies to allow lab animal adoption, I am very happy with the FDA’s new policy allowing healthy dogs, primates, rabbits and other animals to be retired after research.”
Boyle’s bill has 13 Republicans among its 61 co-sponsors. The measure would extend policies like the new one at the FDA to other government agencies.
In fiscal 2018, the FDA reported that 1,929 Animal Welfare Council-regulated animals were used or bred for experiments. At least 27 percent of the animals experienced some type of pain or distress during the experiments, according to agency records.
Despite the trauma that the animals experience, they can still “thrive” after being released from the lab, said Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy for the White Coat Waste Project, a group that aims to stop taxpayer-funded experiments involving animals.
“Animals who are going to be adopted out are going to need to go to families or rescues and sanctuaries that are going to have the time and patience and expertise to help them adjust,” Goodman said, adding that most of the affected animals have never been outside before.
Goodman’s group was instrumental in changing the policies at NIH and the VA. White Coat’s board members include the Scottish-born actress and producer Louise Linton, who's married to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and a supporter of the legislation introduced by Collins and Boyle.
“The FDA should be a role model for other federal agencies that are experimenting on animals, but have not yet agreed to allow them to be released at the end of testing,” Goodman said. “So, we do hope that this is what other agencies will follow suit with the FDA, NIH and VA who have already done this.”
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture are among the government agencies that haven’t set policies for releasing animals after testing.
FDA’s first initiative to retire lab animals came in January 2018, when it retired 26 squirrel monkeys involved in a nicotine study. The monkeys were relocated to Florida, where they’ve been kept indoors in order to adjust to the change in environment. They are slated to be relocated outdoors this month.
Lawmakers who support the AFTER Act say they hope to see other agencies take similar steps in the near future.
“Animals used in taxpayer-funded laboratory research should have the opportunity to be humanely relocated after they are no longer needed," said Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.).