Give Them Back: A Second Chance for Lab Animals
A White Coat Waste Project Op-ed, originally published in M. Citizen Magazine, Issue 7 | Spring 2022
Getting through the pandemic was challenging — but the unconditional love of an animal made it a little easier. Shelters were cleared nationwide as millions of Americans adopted pandemic pets; soft purrs and wagging tails served as emotional life preservers during COVID-19’s darkest days. Even animals who had been in shelters for months found homes. It was heartwarming to see, because no animal should die alone and unloved.
Sadly, thousands of animals have no other choice. They are the forgotten ones, never appearing in shelters, or on adoption websites. They will never know the warmth of a hug, or the feeling of grass beneath their feet, and most will never be adopted — not because they’ve unlovable or bad, but because of bureaucracy. These are the animals that kindness forgot, born to suffer and bred to die: lab animals.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Our organization, White Coat Waste Project (WCW), is dedicated to exposing and ending $20 billion in wasteful government spending on animal experiments and getting as many dogs, cats, bunnies, and other animals out of government labs as possible. When the money stops, the killing stops.
The U.S. government — not big cosmetic companies or big pharmaceutical companies — is the single largest funder of animal experiments in the world. The number of federal agencies that conduct and fund animal testing is surprisingly large. It’s not just the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration that test on animals; the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Justice do too. So do the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control. Even NASA.
Disturbingly, virtually all of the animals who survive government experiments are killed, even when they are healthy enough to live happy lives in loving homes or sanctuaries. Most federal agencies don’t allow taxpayers to adopt these survivors — even though we bankroll their experiments. So, several years ago, WCW launched the first national campaign to make retirement a requirement. Taxpayers bought these survivors; Uncle Sam should give them back!
To date, our ‘Give Them Back’ efforts have retired survivors across the entire federal government — from dogs at the VA, to rabbits at the EPA, guinea pigs at the NIH, and many more.
Case in point: the FDA’s nicotine addiction experiments on baby monkeys. A huge body of research has already proved that nicotine is addictive and smoking is harmful. No one believes otherwise. So why were government white coats at the FDA spending $5.5 million in taxpayer money to addict baby primates to nicotine…in 2018? That seemed to us to be a flagrant misuse of taxpayer funds. Working alongside famed primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, we rallied support from Congress and the general public, and hammered FDA’s wasteful spending in the press. Soon enough, the FDA relented. They ended their nicotine experiments, and agreed, for the first time in agency history, to retire the remaining squirrel monkeys to a sanctuary, where they could live out the rest of their lives in peace.
A similar scenario played out at the USDA, which for decades had run the government’s largest cat lab. The experiments taking place at USDA’s $22 million “Kitten Slaughterhouse” were heartbreaking and disgusting — including buying cat and dog meat from foreign ‘wet markets,’ then feeding the meat to kittens in the lab. After exposing these gruesome ‘kitten cannibalism’ experiments, WCW rallied an army of taxpayers and Members of Congress in both parties, and successfully pressured the USDA to end the experiments. Yet the USDA found itself in a predicament: what should be done with the survivors?
Previously, USDA white coats would simply kill them once the experiments concluded — even healthy kittens, who had not undergone any experiments. But with public scrutiny at an all-time high, that ‘solution’ was untenable. Instead of killing the cats, USDA decided to make them available for adoption. Unfortunately, they had no adoption policy in place, so they sold the survivors for $1 each (check or money order only please, no cash), listing them as “excess property,” along with file cabinets, chairs, and desks. The government can and should do better.
Our ‘Give Them Back’ campaign is personal to WCW: our founder and president now lives with two cats, Petite and Delilah, who survived the USDA lab. Similarly, a WCW board member adopted her dog Violet from a different taxpayer-funded lab. When Violet arrived at her forever home, she was terrified. She didn’t know what grass was; she had never felt the breeze, or seen the sun. Stairs were utterly baffling to her. Yet despite Violet’s steep learning curve, she is happy now. As any pet parent knows, animals are remarkably resilient, capable of overcoming tremendous adversity while staying full of love, joy, and happiness.
Violet has inspired our one of biggest legislative pushes to date. Although we have had great success at pressuring individual agencies into creating retirement policies for animals in their care, a government-wide policy is long overdue. Violet’s Law, formally known as the Animal Freedom from Testing, Experiments, and Research Act — the
AFTER Act for short — would require each federal agency to develop lab animal retirement policies. It is supported by broad bipartisan coalitions in the House and in the Senate, as well as a supermajority of Americans from across the political spectrum.
We brought Petite and Delilah, two of the cats rescued from USDA’s kitten lab, to Capitol Hill, where they got to meet the lawmakers who helped shut down their horrifyingly cruel experiments. “I’m so glad you’re free,” whispered Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, as Delilah purred contentedly.
We are, too.
Devin Murphy is Public Policy and Communications Manager at White Coat Waste Project, a nonprofit focused on ending taxpayer-funded animal experiments with over three million members nationwide.