How Your Tax Dollars Are Funding Brutal Animal Experiments

An appalling investigation finds horrible abuse at USDA research facility.

(Photo: Leslye Davis/NYTimes/Twitter)

Jan 22, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What do you call leaving dozens of starving lambs to die in a hailstorm, locking pigs in steam chambers to test their appetite at high temperatures, or subjecting a cow to such an hours-long breeding by as many as six bulls that it kills her? Your tax dollars at work!

That’s right. In a sweeping exposé published on the front page of The New York Times this week, journalist Michael Moss homes in on a little-known backwater that operates within the sprawling bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture: the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska.

It would certainly seem that a place that uses “meat animal” in its name could hardly be expected to be a haven for animals. But the experiments being conducted with an annual budget of more than $22 million in taxpayer money and little to no oversight by the USDA are truly shocking for their brutality—and all in the name of increasing profits for the American meat industry.

Response to Moss’ investigation has been swift: The story has generated more than 1,000 comments on the Times website and loads of commentary in the blogosphere. For its part, the USDA released a statement Wednesday saying that it was “reviewing additional improvements in its animal science research, including in improving animal well-being,” according to Reuters.

As whistle-blower James Keen, a scientist and veterinarian who worked at the center for more than two decades, put it to the Times, “They pay tons of attention to increasing animal production, and just pebble-sized concern to animal welfare. And it probably looks fine to them because they’re not thinking about it, and they’re not being held accountable. But most Americans and even livestock producers would be hard pressed to support some of the things the center has done.”

For example: Ongoing research to produce “easy care” sheep that don’t require special birthing barns has resulted in dozens if not hundreds of lambs being abandoned in the field by their mothers and left to starve. Efforts to dramatically increase the number of piglets in a litter—from eight to 14—have yielded smaller, weaker young that are prone to being crushed by their mothers. And a similar project to breed cattle that are more likely to produce twins has led to a litany of horrific consequences, including numerous twin calves dying at birth because their eight legs became tangled.

As appalling as these twisted experiments are, what’s just as repugnant are the glimpses of day-to-day indifference to animal suffering at the center, such as the starving ewe encountered by Keen last March, “in plain view of center employees, unable to eat because of a jaw abscess that had likely been growing for months.” The animal later died. Or the email response from one of the center’s lead scientist to an animal manager who had raised concerns about the tiny 4' x 4' pens in which the facility’s pigs were kept. “A lot of time has been wasted addressing a nonissue,” the scientist wrote.

How does a federally run research center get away with all this? It’s simple, really. Way back in 1966, when Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act, it specifically excluded research on farm animals that was intended to benefit agriculture. Even as universities and some companies that conduct experiments on livestock have worked to adopt their own ethical standards and construct a checks-and-balances system that includes independent, third-party oversight, the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center has resisted joining in—and its parent agency, the USDA, has, until this week, taken a more or less hands-off approach.

“As a result,” Moss writes, the research center “has become a destination for the kind of high-risk, potentially controversial research that other institutions will not do or are no longer allowed to do.”

Whether the department actually follows through on its promise to review the animal welfare practices at the facility—or is just biding its time with vague promises—no doubt depends on how quickly the controversy blows over. And while Moss’ report provides ample reason to shut down the facility simply for brutalizing animals on the taxpayers’ dime, it’s worth keeping in mind that the center’s $22.7 million budget is a drop in the bucket when it comes to the federal government’s subsidies for the commercial agroindustrial complex, which tortures animals and trashes our environment in order to produce the very sort of cheap food that is arguably wreaking havoc on Americans’ health.

It’s a perspective that Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, helpfully provides in his response to Moss’ story report over at Huffington Post. “The Center is just a particularly morbid example of how the government is subsidizing factory farming to the tune of billions of dollars a year,” he writes, citing all the surplus animal products the USDA buys up only to “pawn off the hormone-laden, antibiotic-treated meat on poor schoolchildren and others who depend on food assistance programs.” That’s not to mention the billions spent by the USDA on crop subsidies for animal feed, crop insurance, predator control, and waste management.

“The government of Canada doles out millions in subsidies to the sealing industry, the Japanese government funds the whaling industry’s killing and marketing, and the United States government breaks the bank to aid the factory farming lobby,” Pacelle writes. “This whole broken, busted, cruel system needs to be reformed from the ground up. The USDA needs to stop serving as the R&D arm, surplus buyer, feed subsidizer, and advertiser for the factory farming industry. Really, these guys can make it on their own. Let’s have a little bit of the free market back at work, and stop a program built on vast subsidies and few rules.”