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February 18, 2010

Congress Considers Closing Down “Class B” Dealers

Sales of pet dogs and cats from “random sources” for biomedical research may end

The Humane Society of the United States

by Mike Satchell

If your dog or cat goes missing for several days, chances are that you'll worry about the possibility of injury or death from a vehicle collision or predator. You may not give much thought to the possibility that your pet could be stolen by someone who sells animals to laboratories for biomedical experiments. While the likelihood of your dog or cat ending up in a research lab is remote these days, for decades it was a very real threat.

America first woke up to the "random source" animal trade in 1966 when a LIFE magazine expose entitled "Concentration Camp for Dogs" horrified the public and Congress. It prompted passage of the first version of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) to regulate the lab animal trade. (See a timeline of pets used in experiments.) Dealers selling to labs were formally designated as "Class B" dealers under the AWA.

The HSUS, other animal protection organizations, and the media have documented decades of inhumane treatment in the Class B system. Brutal handling, lack of veterinary care, inadequate food and water, dilapidated holding facilities, falsified or missing records, and outright trafficking in stolen pets has been widespread. As recently as 2006, an HBO documentary "Dealing Dogs" unearthed conditions at an Arkansas dealer's facility that, according to a USDA complaint, "treated hundreds of animals cruelly and inhumanely in myriad ways including failing to provide them with the most basic needs."

Over the past decades, experiments on dogs and cats have declined steadily. In the late 1960s, about 400,000 dogs were used by labs each year. By 1972, according to the USDA, it was less than 200,000 and in 2007, the total had plummeted to 72,000. Among the reasons: more sophisticated testing or educational methods, alternate animal models, animal rights activism, shifts in public opinion and the often-poor health and unknown history of random source animals.

Today, only 10 registered Class B dealers service the labs, selling roughly 3,000 dogs and cats a year. Six of them are under investigation by the USDA for AWA violations, one is under a five year license suspension, and Congress is set to consider eliminating support for the system altogether.

In May 2009, the National Academy of Sciences, responding to a Congressional request to evaluate Class B dealers, concluded they were no longer needed. The Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services then called for a halt in funding for the program "as quickly as possible." In October 2009, the American Physiological Society, a longtime defender of the Class B trade, endorsed the NAS recommendations, and the HSUS-backed Pet Safety and Protection Act to scrap the program was reintroduced into the House with 85 co-sponsors and into the Senate with 12. The legislation awaits hearings in both Agriculture committees.

"The Class B system is in a free fall," says Martin Stephens, vice president of animal research for The HSUS. "Some 50 institutions still buy random source animals and we are urging them to stop. This is an opportunity to put these dealers out of business for good and end a terrible institutional abuse of animals we've been fighting for more than 40 years."

Mike Satchell is editor-at-large for The Humane Society of the United States.

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