A Michigan congressman is calling for a review of a USDA lab in Maryland that he says conducts medical research on kittens and then kills them.
In a letter dated Monday, Rep. Michael Bishop called for U.S. Agriculture Sec. Sonny Perdue to answer questions about the USDA's Agricultural Research Service facility in Beltsville.
According to information Bishop said his office has reviewed, the lab breeds kittens, feeds them raw meat infected with a parasite, harvests the parasites and kills the kittens by incinerating them.
"I’m shocked and disturbed that for decades the USDA -- the very organization charged with enforcing animal welfare laws -- has been unnecessarily killing hundreds of kittens in expensive and inefficient lab experiments,” Bishop said in a statement.
In the letter, Bishop wrote that protocol calls for 100 kittens to be used in the research project. In an email, an ARS spokeswoman said that was a “serious overestimation.”
“The Agricultural Research Service-USDA makes every effort to minimize the number of cats used to produce eggs required to research one of the most widespread parasites in the world,” the ARS said in a statement.
According to Bishop's letter and the ARS statement, the research is related to toxoplasmosis. The illness can cause blindness and developmental problems in fetuses, a USDA website says.
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Toxoplasmosis, which has infected more than 10 million people worldwide, “is considered to be a leading cause of death attributed to foodborne illness in the United States,” the ARS statement said.
Cats are the only animals that excrete the parasite in its environmentally resistant stage, the ARS said in the statement.
The cats are not transported to rescues because of the risk that toxoplasmosis might spread to adoptive families, the ARS said.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, who represents the area where the lab is located, said he also had questions about the project.
“The concerns raised in Congressman Bishop’s letter are deeply troubling, and I strongly urge Secretary Perdue and the Department of Agriculture to thoroughly answer the legitimate questions raised in his letter," he said in a statement.
The lab in Beltsville conducts research on a long list of topics affecting people, animals and plants, according to its website.
The lab has previously been a target of animal rights groups. In 1987, a group conducted a "Rambo-style raid" on the facility, cutting through a fence and taking 28 laboratory cats and seven miniature pigs, The New York Times reported at the time. Activists said the animals were mistreated. Federal officials said the raid ruined an experiment related to preventing infants' deaths.
Bishop, a Republican, is up for election in Michigan's 8th District. For a third quarter in a row, Democratic challenger Elissa Slotkin has raised more cash than he has, the Detroit Free Press reported.