The U.S. Department of Agriculture is finally ending a much-criticized program of deadly experiments on cats and allowing the remaining animals to be put up for adoption.
In a statement released this week, the department announced an immediate end to the "use of cats as part of any research protocol in any ARS laboratory."
Under the USDA's Agricultural Research Services, cats were injected with toxoplasmosis, a parasite that's often found in undercooked meat and is also associated with used kitty litter. The infection doesn't typically cause health problems in humans — some 40 million Americans may have it without symptoms — but it can cause issues for pregnant women and babies.
For the cats and kittens in the ARS experiments, however, the outcome was inevitably fatal. After scientists collected the parasite from the infected animals, they were routinely euthanized. According to the USDA statement, it was necessary to put them down rather than put them up for adoption in the interest of public safety.
"In November 2018, an external independent panel charged with reviewing the safety of adopting the cats unanimously agreed that cats infected with toxoplasmosis pathogens should not be placed for adoption, as the risk to human health was too great," the USDA noted.
But since then, public outcry only intensified — particularly when anti-animal research group White Coat Waste Project released a report alleging the cats were forced to eat can and dog meat from overseas markets.
Dubbing the practice "kitten cannibalism," the report alleged that the dog and cat meat was force fed to 82 percent of the animals in the federal program.
"Particularly troubling," the report adds, "Is that some of these cats and dogs were purchased by the USDA from meat markets the some of the same Asian countries (China and Vietnam) that U.S. Congress roundly condemned for their dog and cat meat trades ‘on cruelty and public health grounds' in a House Resolution unanimously passed in 2018."
Ultimately, the watchdog claims, taxpayers footed the bill for a program of animal torture.
"We are elated that after a year of campaigning we have relegated the slaughter of kittens to the litter box of history," Justin Goodman, vice president of the White Coat Waste Project, tells NPR.
Indeed, the organization's efforts struck a chord not only with the American public, but also with elected officials.
"The USDA's decision to slaughter kittens after they are used in research is an archaic practice and horrific treatment, and we need to end it," Sen. Jeff Merkeley told NBC News last month.
The USDA countered the criticism with claims that the experiments are for life-saving medicine. Euthanasia, the department maintained, was necessary to stop the parasite from reaching humans — although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges all stated otherwise.
The USDA argument didn't sway legislators in the House of Representatives from introducing a bill last May called the "Kittens in Traumatic Testing Ends Now Act," also known as the KITTEN Act. A similar bill was introduced a few months later in the Senate.
The program, which saw some 3,000 cats and kittens pass through USDA labs over the last four decades may be at an end, but there are still a few loose ends that need to be tied up.
Namely, what to do with the 14 cats still in the USDA's care. And that's where this dark era of animal testing seems to be ending, at last on a bright note.
The USDA has relented and allowed them to be taken home by department staff.
Those survivors will soon know freedom for the first time in their lives.
"The USDA made the right decision today, and I applaud them for their willingness to change course," Merkley noted in a statement. "It's a good day for our four-legged friends across America.