The issue of animal testing is a hot one, but what's going on here is stunning by any measure. And we're funding it.Trigger warning: This post describes animal mistreatment, and the video below contains descriptions and scenes some may find disturbing.
50 years ago, Congress decided to bring together all of the agriculture research conducted by the Department of Agriculture.
Congress created the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, or USMARC.
USMARC's work is about keeping the meat industry in the game as sales shift to poultry, fish, and produce. This little-known complex outside Clay Center, Nebraska, does help to check the spread of livestock diseases and promote food safety standards. But many of its efforts involve finding new ways to make beef, pork, and lamb cheaper to produce and taste better.
Some of USMARC's experiments have been revealed as shockingly brutal.
The landmark Animal Welfare Act passed by Congress in 1966 protects the rights of animals to some extent. It's an important law for people who care about animals.
But there's a giant loophole in the Animal Welfare Act:
It doesn't apply to farm animals raised for food.
They're on their own. And it's this giant loophole that makes USMARC's horrifying experiments legal.
The Department of Agriculture hasn't seemed interested in policing USMARC, and so it does what it wants.
They've been engineering pig reproduction.
The center has been operating on pigs' ovaries and brains to make the pigs more fertile.
Scientists who aren't surgeons operate on the animals.
Sows now produce up to 14 piglets at a time; eight is the natural size of a litter. The piglets are weak, though, and the pork industry finds that about 10 million piglets are accidentally crushed to death by their mothers every year, with these larger litters being a factor.
Some of the experiments create new problems the center then tries to fix with yet more experiments. For example, they've bred pigs that produce leaner meat, but they're infertile.
They've been breeding cows to produce twins and triplets.
Normally, cows birth one calf at a time. The twin and triplet calves are often born sickly or deformed, and many of them die.
Then there's the "easy-care" sheep.
Maybe the most heartless treatment of all is reserved for the sheep. USMARC is attempting to take this domesticated animal and breed it to take care of itself in the wild to save ranchers money.
In the program, sheep give birth outside, and the center watches to see if ewes protect their newborns from predators, starvation, and weather. They're hoping that if the babies become desperate enough, their moms will respond.
Sheep are notoriously disinterested mothers, though, so they mostly don't. And on some days, 30% to 40% of the newborns are dead within a day, with others not lasting much longer. On Mother's Day 2014, for example, researchers retrieved 25 bodies. This has been going on since 2004.
If veterinarian and scientist James Keen, who worked at USMARC for 24 years, hadn't approached the New York Times a year ago with the story, we'd probably still know nothing about what goes on inside USMARC's locked security fences. His information led to a harrowing article in the Times.
Here's the Times' interview with Keen:
The article has gotten people's attention.
In February 2015, government officials finally started dealing with USMARC as a result of the Times article.
Lawmakers from both parties and in both houses of Congress introduced the Aware Act, which for the first time would extend protections to farm animals like those at USMARC. This level of agreement between the political parties is surprising — and awesome, really.
In the meantime, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has begun an inquiry to help bring this abuse to an end quickly.
This is all great news.
It's important that the politicians know that voters care about these animals. After all, proposing a law is one thing. Getting it passed is another. And the battle's not over until that happens.
If you can, contact your legislators to let them know how you feel about USMARC and the Aware Act. Let's get this done.