- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2000

Last week, your government announced a legal settlement with animal rights activists that recognized
that lab rats, mice and birds are entitled to protection under the Animal Welfare Act.
Great. Now rats have rights.
The settlement follows a lawsuit filed by an affiliate of the American Anti-Vivisection Society and Beaver College psychology student Kristine Gausz, who complained she saw lab rats receive "inadequate housing, water, food and veterinary care." She stated in an affidavit, "I am personally, aesthetically, emotionally and profoundly disturbed when observing rats treated and cared for inhumanely. Repeatedly, I have observed rats that were suffering and subject to deplorable living conditions, which has been an assault on my senses."
When one considers the squalor in which many mentally ill street people live, Miss Gausz's decision to fight for better living conditions for rodents, not people, is breathtaking. Talk about misplaced priorities.
In June, U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle ruled Miss Gausz had standing to sue the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its failure to include rats, mice and birds as animals protected by the Animal Welfare Act because the "plaintiff's aesthetic interest" had been offended.
Frankie Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, is appalled at the suit and the USDA's settlement. But as Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman explained, government attorneys believed "an adverse judgment was a very real possibility." The judge had written that the Animal Welfare Act never specifically excluded birds, mice and rats. (Of course it didn't. Who knew anyone would file a lawsuit demanding "humane" treatment for lab rats?) A judicial fiat could be more onerous than a settlement.
Now the USDA will start to write regulations to guarantee the "humane" treatment of rats, mice and birds.
Miss Trull argues that new regulations are unnecessary because the National Institutes of Health already regulate most rodent lab experiments. What's more, it is not in researchers' interest to mistreat animals used in experiments because, "if an animal is stressed, it skews the data."
She does not believe the settlement is in the public interest because it will add to the burdens on medical research that could help save human lives. A settlement could require researchers to consider alternatives to any procedures that might produce pain or even discomfort for lab rats.
"What the USDA did was really reprehensible because they are negotiating with an activist community, which is by definition opposed to all animal research," said Miss Trull.
The rat-huggers, in essence, care more about the welfare of pea-brained mice and rats than the lives and health of children and adults who suffer with AIDS, cancer and other diseases.
Now that lab rats and mice have rights, one shudders to think of what happens next. Will the 14th Amendment be rewritten to guarantee equal protection for roof rats and field mice? If lab rats have rights to veterinary care and housing, how can lab researchers conduct experiments that end in euthanizing the rodents? Be assured that rodent-rights advocates will do their utmost to outlaw medical research on all animals; this settlement is simply a successful opening salvo.
Miss Trull sees hope in congressional efforts to defund the USDA settlement. That's not enough. Washington ought to enact a bill that specifically exempts rats, mice and birds from the Animal Welfare Act. Otherwise, the courts might open doors that free rodents and doom people to disease. Sick children and adults stand to suffer because of this precedent.

Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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