WASHINGTON, D.C.--Animal rights groups have won the latest round in their long-running fight to force the U.S. government to more tightly regulate the use of mice, rats, and birds in scientific research. Congress last week approved an agriculture spending bill that allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to start developing the new rules, which biomedical groups blocked last year in an 11th-hour lobbying victory.
The controversy stems from a 30-year-old USDA policy that exempts mice, rats, and birds--which account for 95% of all experimental animals--from regulation under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Last year, after several court battles, USDA signed a pact with animal rights groups and agreed to draft caging and care rules. The deal outraged biomedical groups, which argued that USDA regulation would duplicate existing government and voluntary rules and drain millions of dollars from research accounts. They quickly convinced Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) to block USDA action by adding a ban to the 2001 agricultural appropriations bill (Science, 13 October 2000, p. 243).
This year, Congress seemed ready to continue the freeze after the House included the ban in its version of the agriculture measure. But the Senate balked after Democrats took control this spring. As a result of the switch, Senator Herb Kohl (D-MI) took over the subcommittee that oversees agriculture spending from Cochran. Lobbyists say Kohl--who is considered friendlier to animal rights groups--was instrumental in hammering out the compromise language included in this year's bill. It allows USDA to begin writing the regulations and seek public comment, but it bars the agency from finalizing any rules before 30 September 2002, when the annual measure expires. That gives lawmakers a chance to revisit the issue next year.
"Finally, we can get started [on regulations] that will be good for animals and for science," says lobbyist Nancy Blaney of the Working Group to Preserve the Animal Welfare Act, a coalition of animal rights groups. But Tony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges, which opposes the idea, says the decision is "disappointing; all this would do is create costly paperwork for research institutions."