Kitten cannibalism: the shadier side of animal experimentation

A nonprofit group known as the White Coat Waste Project released a report claiming that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has killed over 3,000 cats in a project researching a disease known as toxoplasmosis. These experiments, dating back to 1982, have included kitten cannibalism and have cost over $22.5 million, calling into question the ethics of this study.

Toxoplasmosis is caused by the parasite T.gondii, commonly found in tainted foods and cat feces, and can be transmitted between mother and child. While the disease can be serious to pregnant women and their babies or individuals with a compromised immune system, the parasite can only complete its full life cycle in cats. Despite the fact that T.gondii is one of the world’s most common parasites, symptoms of toxoplasmosis are rarely exhibited in infected people.

The report indicated that the USDA purchased cats and dogs from countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, largely from Chinese meat markets condemned by Congress and other animal rights groups. Lab-bred cats would be fed raw, infected meat of the cats purchased abroad so that the lab cats’ feces could be harvested and studied for food safety research. Once a cat ceased to produce feces with the T.gondii parasite, it would be killed. Infected cat feces would also be purchased from China to be injected into mice.

There are several issues concerning this horrific practice of kitten cannibalism. One is that dog and cat meat is not representative of the normal diets of cats, dogs and mice, making the research irrelevant regarding the natural biology of toxoplasmosis. Two, the consumption of dogs and cats is a very rare phenomenon in the United States. A major bill passed last year outlawed “the knowingly slaughter, transport, possession, buying, selling, or donating of dogs, cats, or their parts for human consumption,” according to the House of Representatives Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act of 2018, further invalidating USDA kitten toxoplasmosis experimentation for the purpose of food safety research.

The experiments are laced with cruelty as, according to veterinary experts, cats that ceased to produce feces with the T.gondii parasite did not pose a threat to public health and could have been adopted rather than killed. “USDA kitten toxoplasmosis experimentation causes unnecessary animal pain and suffering, little or no scientific benefit, and wastes millions of taxpayer dollars as a consequence of non-competitive perpetual intramural federal funding,” the report states. The vicious act of purchasing innocent animals from foreign countries and slaughtering them to feed them to their own kind, who will also be killed once they stop providing further use “is simply disgusting and unjustifiable,” said Florida Representative Brian Mast.

The balance between animal testing and science ethics is a very sensitive and controversial topic. What justifies pain, suffering and other cruelties that animals must face in these experiments? Many may argue that the ends justify the means, in that the advancement in medical technology is enough to morally allow animal testing. However, others may disagree in that the use of life as a means is unethical, and the lack of preservation of life exhibited in such research is reprehensible.

Whichever side one may take, the horrific chapter of kitten cannibalism closes for good as the Agricultural Research Service, part of the USDA, announced on April 2 in a news release that “the use of cats as a part of any research protocol in any ARS laboratory has been discontinued and will not be reinstated.”

The ARS stated that it aims to re-focus its toxoplasmosis research, and that the 14 cats currently in the program were to be adopted into families of USDA employees. In a year-long campaign of protesting cruel tests on animals, President of the White Coat Waste Project Anthony Bellotti is glad to state that “the USDA’s kitten slaughterhouse has finally been relegated to the litterbox of history.”