Editor’s Note: For an alternative viewpoint, please see Counterpoint: Experiments on Animals Are Indefensible — Ethically and Scientifically
The eye-catching headlines were hard to miss: “Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Ban Research Kitten ‘Slaughter,’” “USDA Turning Lab Cats Into Cannibals.” And the news stories that followed sounded more like science fiction than science.
So when the Department of Agriculture recently ended its feline studies in the face of public pressure, it likely surprised no one. But looking back, did government researchers fail us? Or perhaps, did we fail them?
Cats or no cats, no one can claim the USDA’s research was frivolous. It was aimed at counteracting a food parasite so commonplace an estimated 25 percent of the American population over the age of 12 is already infected. Thankfully, most of us are not affected. However, the parasite Toxoplasma gondii is far from harmless. Those with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly, pregnant women and their unborn children, and those with cancer are at risk for developing Toxoplasmosis, a severe illness that can cause blindness and even brain damage.
Given that we’re talking about a serious health risk, one might hope for a fact-based public debate. That didn’t happen. Public opinion, for the most part, was formed by splashy headlines and social media posts aimed at generating anger and derailing reasoned discussion.
As a result, many Americans likely do not even know why cats were involved in the studies in the first place. It wasn’t by random chance. Felines are the only animals that pass oocytes, the environmentally resistant stage of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, making them a critical part of the research process. Of course, a wide variety of animals, mainly rodents, frequently play a pivotal role in advancing human and animal health. Their involvement is often necessary. They also deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.
It’s also important to remember, that the initial objections to the USDA’s cat research were not that the studies were unnecessary. At first, animal activists only protested the federal agency’s decision to humanely euthanize animals when their projects came to a close. Then, late last year, an independent panel of experts looked into the matter. They concluded that the USDA was correct in not allowing the animals to be adopted out because Toxoplasmosis infection can persist in cats and pose a public health risk.
That expert ruling on adoptions likely led to the recent claims of “cat cannibalism” by opponents, feeling that they needed a new line of attack. Here’s the reality: Toxoplasmosis is a food-borne illness. Animals — including humans — can be exposed by eating infected meat. Therefore, is it really surprising that the research involved something that happens in the wild every day, animals eating meat containing parasites? Of course not.
Concerns about the source of some of the infected meat used in the research are valid. Some of it was said to come from overseas markets where cats and dogs are sold as food. However, the value of the research is an entirely separate matter, as is the seriousness of the disease itself.
What lessons should we take away from all of this? First, science is complex, at times mindbogglingly so. On the other hand, generating oversimplified, misleading and ghoulish-sounding catchphrases like “cat cannibalism” is much easier in comparison.
We now live in an age where emotionally charged rhetoric and demonizing one’s opponents is par for the course. Facts at times, become inconvenient when special interest groups decide their wishes outweigh the greater good.
For several months, the USDA’s Toxoplasmosis research was transformed into a political football. As a result, public health considerations fell by the wayside and that should worry all of us. After all, the safety of our food supply is not a game. And if scientific facts no longer matter, we all lose.