x million rats and mice are used in US labs every year —- so . . . . ?

published my estimate of over 110 million mice annually in US labs and got some criticism of my methods and the resulting estimate. Fair enough. So let’s suppose there are “only” some 30 or 50 million per year. What should we do with that info? 

Two opposite conclusions from seeing these large numbers:

This is too many animals to leave out of the federal protections of the US Animal Welfare Act (AWA)

This is too many animals for the USDA ever to be able to extend AWA protections to

As I said in my article, the truly large number of mice in labs should make us ask whether they should become “animals” in the US Animal Welfare Act. I say Yes; others say No.

Knowing my concern that Congress has said that mice are not “animals” in the eyes of the Animal Welfare Act, told David Grimm two more-or-less opposite reasons for keeping things as they are:

  1. Speaking of Research “disagrees with the idea that the animals are at risk of being mistreated because they are not covered by the AWA… that all labs that receive federal funding must answer to institutional animal care and use committees, which follow the three Rs and oversee the welfare of all lab animals. Those that don’t receive federal funds typically submit to AAALAC inspections,… It is unlikely that there are large number of facilities that are uncovered by any regulation.”
  • Except, according to the National Association for Biomedical Research, it would do something. Maybe that something would not improve these animals’ welfare, but the government would not “have the time or money to track so many animals, and that doing so would drain vital resources. Now is not the time to be seeking additional restrictions on biomedical research or endeavoring to make it more difficult and more expensive.” 
  1. To the first point, I agree (anecdotal experience and informal communication) that accreditation site visits are really quite rigorous and helpful. I don’t see that accreditation alone, without AWA inspections, is sufficient (see below).  As for their claim that it is unlikely that there are large number of facilities that are uncovered by any regulation — first, nobody knows how many [ SoR estimates 10 – 25 million, which is highly implausible, so I’m not sure I buy their other estimates]. Second, perhaps we should worry that there are labs with no regulatory oversight and that are not accredited [I certainly know of several] and why should we be confident in the quality of their animal care?
  1. On the second point, I agree that the USDA’s resources would be stretched if they upped their game to covering the other 99% of mammals in labs. From the point of view of the inspected, again, I’m not convinced. Places that have NIH regulations to follow and/or are already accredited are already doing committee reviews and annual reports, which is what AWA coverage would require. Places that aren’t, should be, and AWA coverage would make that happen.   

So, are current welfare protections good enough for mice?

I say “no,” for four main reasons:

  • There is close to zero public transparency about mouse use
  • There are many labs (No One Knows how many, because only the AWA that excludes them requires publicly reporting animal numbers) that are not accredited and are not under jurisdiction of NIH animal welfare laws and 
  • It is impossible to monitor trends in animal use, including in painful experiments, without sound publicly-available statistics
  • There’s nothing like an unannounced USDA inspection to keep people on their toes.

What to do? 

Well, it will take an act of Congress, quite literally, for mice to become Animal Welfare Act animals. That will not happen. American politics is a bit of a mess now, eh? Still there should be a system in which these animals at least occasionally receive the kind of spot-checks from government veterinary animal welfare inspectors that hamsters get.

The NIH could certainly commit to greater transparency, for that fraction (half? fewer? more?) of lab mice under NIH jurisdiction. They could add up the numbers of animals reported to them annually and post that, as USDA does for Animal Welfare Act-covered animals. They could (with resources they don’t presently have) do more site visits and make their findings public (you can get them, but only via FOIA requests).

Meanwhile, many good people are working on ways to make laboratory life better for our most important and numerous animals, if only their efforts can trickle up to administrators who know their institution can escape scrutiny of much of their animal research.  

Published by larrycarbone

Larry Carbone is a veterinarian with 40 years of experience caring for animals in laboratories. In addition to his veterinary degree, he holds a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, and specialty certifications in Animal Welfare (ACAW) and in Laboratory Animal Medicine (ACLAM). Carbone left the University of California San Francisco in 2019, and is now a freelance animal welfare scholar, consultant, speaker, and trainer in laboratory animal welfare. Carbone writes about public policy, ethics, and laboratory animal welfare. His 2004 book, What Animals Want: Expertise and Advocacy in Laboratory Animal Welfare [Oxford University Press] tells the story the United States Animal Welfare Act. Once Congress decided to update that law and regulate how scientists use animals in their experiments, everyone wanted to tell them what changes would really matter to the animals themselves. How could medical researchers, animal protectionists, veterinarians and citizens disagree so much on how big a cage a guinea pig harem should have, how to evaluate and treat pain in a lab mouse, what makes for a psychologically enriched monkey, or how much exercise dogs need, settle for, or yearn for in their caged lives? What Animals Want is available in print or kindle. With one foot in the humanities and one in veterinary science, Carbone is uniquely poised to examine the policy and ethical ramifications of emerging information animal welfare science. Humans use and impact captive, domestic and wild animals in so many ways, and we must understand how our actions matter to the animals as perceived by the animals. Much of his recent work has focused on pain management: Animals cannot run to the medicine chest for an aspirin, so people must have the best tools for recognizing pain, preventing pain, treating pain, assessing whether the treatments are effective, and deciding when animals will be left with untreated pain in the pursuit of medical research. When not working on animal issues, Larry Carbone is a potter in San Francisco, a member of Ruby’s Clay Studio. His work is mostly functional wheel-thrown stoneware and porcelain, with occasional flights to the dysfunctional. Carbone is a traveler, especially to places where he can see and photograph animals. He travels with his husband, David Takacs, professor of environmental law at UC Hastings College of the Law.

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