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Exposing Cruel Research

Investigative reporting prompts widespread outrage

By Beth Jojack

  • A taxpayer-funded facility subjected farm animals to horrific experiments. Photo by Tannen Maury/EPA/Newscom

Michael Moss happened upon a bleating, newborn lamb left all alone on a Nebraska pasture. With a hailstorm approaching, the animal—abandoned by her mother, starving, without shelter—faced certain death. Moss would later describe this scene as haunting.

"I think for that moment, I felt what ranchers and farmers feel when they see their animals suffer and die," Moss says. "In this case, the difference was that it was part of the program to allow that death to happen by design as the scientists labored to create stronger, more profitable sheep."

The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter traveled to Clay Center, Nebraska, last year to report on the treatment of sheep, cows and pigs at the taxpayer-funded U.S. Meat Animal Research Center. Along with the visit, Moss combed through a pile of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the center.

The resulting exposé, which ran on the front page of The New York Times in January, painted a horrific picture of scientists doing experiments such as leaving lambs to fend for themselves as part of an attempt to breed so-called "easy care" sheep. Another test forced pigs into steam chambers to study their appetites. And the center failed at even the most basic aspects of animal care: Moss reported thousands of animals were allowed to starve to death.

Urge your legislators to close the animal research loophole by supporting the AWARE Act »

The article, and an accompanying photo of a pile of dead lambs, generated immediate outrage and alarm. Sen. Cory Booker posted a reaction on Twitter the day the story ran, writing that Moss’ article "speaks to a level of cruelty to animals that is unacceptable."

By early February, the New Jersey Democrat, along with a bipartisan slate of lawmakers, had introduced the Research Endeavors (AWARE) Act in the House and Senate. The bill would eliminate a loophole that exempts farm animals used in agricultural experiments from Animal Welfare Act protections.

The HSUS mobilized advocates to encourage their legislators to support the act. Kathleen Conlee, HSUS vice president of animal research issues, says her office also has requested thousands of pages of documents and is researching the facility.

Following the uproar over Moss’ reporting, the USDA published its own report, prepared after a three-day, preannounced visit to the facility in February. The authors found the center provided inadequate oversight of animal care and research projects and that employees need a clearly defined training program in animal handling. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the center will not be allowed to begin any new experiments until the situation improves.

I think for that moment, I felt what ranchers and farmers feel when they see their animals suffer and die." - Michael Moss

Moss began looking into the facility after receiving a tip in late 2013 from veterinarian and epidemiologist James Keen, who had worked there for more than 20 years. Attempts to reach Keen at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he now works, were not successful, but Moss reported that Keen said he’s been forbidden to return to the facility after allowing in a reporter. Moss believes the whistleblower faced other ramifications as well.

"I think he has felt some criticism from peers for speaking out,” Moss says, "but he’s also been receiving an incredible amount of support from colleagues who for one reason or another weren’t able to speak out like he was but are expressing gratitude that he did."

Beyond the gruesome animal abuse, Moss' article also touched on the trend of consumers demanding more humanely raised meat.

"What the story did," he says, "was reflect this growing concern among people about what they put in their bodies, where their food comes from, both from a health standpoint and an animal welfare standpoint."

During his reporting, Moss located several meat producers who objected to the experiments. One rancher Moss interviewed came close to tears when talking about the responsibility he felt toward his animals.

"That emotion that they feel and the dedication they have to doing right by their animals above and beyond the financial gains was really moving to me," Moss says. "There are many producers who feel strongly that we have an obligation to treat farm animals as well as we possibly can because we’re raising them and growing them to eat them, especially for that reason."

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