Our Opinion: Congress must end USDA's cruel kitten study

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Kittens are intentionally poisoned with parasite-infested meat, studied and then burned alive — and it's happening on your dime.

Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. spoke out last week about a controversial U.S. Department of Agriculture research project and signed on to a bipartisan bill that would eliminate the taxpayer-funded form of animal cruelty.

The Farmville Republican was shocked to learn that the USDA's Agriculture Research Service uses kittens in toxoplasmosis testing. He has two 7-year-old Siamese cats, the News & Observer reported, siblings named Buddha and Sadat. 

"As a longtime cat owner, I was alarmed that the federal government has been secretively spending Americans' tax dollars for archaic experiments on kittens, and then needlessly killing the healthy animals at the end of the project," Jones said in a news release. "Abusing pets in government labs with taxpayers' money has to stop and I'll continue to fight until it does."

Jones met last week with Animal Planet star Hannah Shaw and representatives from the White Coat Waste Project, an advocacy group working to end taxpayer-funded animal testing, the Raleigh newspaper reported.

Rep. Mike Bishop, a Michigan Republican, introduced the KITTEN Act — an acronym for Kittens in Traumatic Testing Ends Now — on May 11. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Bishop wrote that the USDA breeds hundreds of kittens, feeds them raw meat infected with Toxoplasma parasites for two to three weeks, collects and studies their feces and then destroys the cats through incineration.

This study, Bishop says, has been ongoing since 1982. 

Toxoplasmosis causes around 750 U.S. deaths each year, but it's not considered a life-threatening disease for otherwise healthy adults. It "may cause flu-like symptoms in some people, but most people affected never develop signs and symptoms," according to the Mayo Clinic. 

It may cause "serious complications" for babies born to infected mothers and people with compromised immune systems, but there already are at least two FDA-approved medications to treat the disease.

We realize animal testing is credited with medical advances that have saved human lives, but after 36 years, what's left to be gained from torturing and killing America's most popular pet? (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates there are 85.8 million cats and 78 million dogs in the United States.)

Not only are the USDA's kittens made to suffer needlessly, but the method by which they're killed is an outrage. Why incinerate live animals instead of humanely euthanizing them by injection as public animal shelters do?

The manner in which these animals are treated would be upsetting enough if a private lab were responsible. The fact that a government agency is committing these atrocities with taxpayer money is enough to turn our stomachs.

We commend Congressman Jones for adding his name to the KITTEN Act and calling attention to this cruel and inhumane research. The bill currently has 19 Democratic and six Republican sponsors, and it's a mystery why all 435 U.S. representatives haven't signed on to the legislation. House rules place no upper limit on the number of members who may co-sponsor a bill.

We call on Wilson County's congressmen, Reps. G.K. Butterfield and George Holding, to add their names without delay.

Science sometimes gets short shrift in politics when lawmakers cherry-pick details of legitimate studies to make them seem wasteful or ridiculous, such as the widely lampooned "shrimp on a treadmill" research that measured the species' response to changes in water quality. This is not one of those times.

Intentionally poisoning kittens to pad a 36-year study is cruel. Burning them to death is evil. There's no rationalizing it or explaining it away.

The USDA cannot be allowed to continue this inhumane practice.