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Earlier this year, the Virginia legislature passed a law requiring that cats and dogs no longer needed in research laboratories be offered for adoption into loving homes. Virginia joins 11 other states that have this humane policy on the books.
Now, federal lawmakers are also renewing their effort to do the same for all government labs.
U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Gary Peters (D-Michigan) recently re-introduced the Animal Freedom from Testing, Experimentation and Research Act (the AFTER Act), which would require all federal agencies to enact policies that encourage and facilitate lab-animal retirement and adoption.
One non-profit group I volunteer with that is backing the bill, White Coat Waste Project, calls the legislation “Violet’s Law” after a hound dog that one of its team members adopted from a lab.
U.S. government labs conduct research on roughly 40,000 dogs, cats, primates, rabbits and other federally-regulated animals each year (this excludes millions of mice, rats and fish). While some animals are subjected to invasive and terminal research, others are used in behavioral or minimally invasive studies, or bred to be used, and ultimately not.
While some U.S. agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs – that latter of which calls lab-animal retirement “an ethical obligation” – have adopted animal-retirement policies, at least 10 others have not. And records show that thousands of healthy, adoptable animals have been killed by government labs because of a lack of knowledge about retirement options and, in some disturbing cases, out of sheer convenience.
My own research shows why lab-animal retirement is good science and sound policy.
One study I presented last year at a Johns Hopkins University symposium compared the psychological and behavioral characteristics of more than 300 adopted former lab dogs and non-lab dogs. As you might imagine, I found that dogs rescued from labs exhibited increased fearfulness, avoidance, attention and attachment behaviors, and more abnormal behaviors than the convenience sample. However, I also found that they were significantly less aggressive than non-lab dogs.
I also found no significant differences on a majority of the behaviors assessed, including trainability, leash-pulling, chewing and energy.
My findings demonstrate that despite some residual fear and anxiety from their early-life experiences, these dogs can adjust to living in homes, form strong bonds with their caregivers and make equally good companions as their non-lab counterparts.
Likewise, my research has found that wild animals, like primates, can thrive in sanctuaries even after surviving long-term invasive lab research.
Fortunately for the animals, post-research retirement is an issue with widespread public and political support. A national survey, conducted last year by the polling firm Lincoln Park Strategies, also found that over 70 percent of Americans support federal lab-animal-retirement legislation.
And the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine – both of which advocate for animal testing – have position statements strongly promoting the post-research adoption and retirement of animals.
While we continue to ardently work towards ending cruel, unnecessary and ineffective animal testing, the least we can do is to give the animals who survive experiments a second chance. The AFTER Act is a great start, and I hope Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine will join this bipartisan effort.
Dr. Stacy Lopresti-Goodman is a professor of psychology at Marymount University.