WASHINGTON — A congressman is calling for an investigation into “secretive and problematic” experiments by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in which hundreds of kittens are reportedly being killed by incineration in Prince George’s County.
But the USDA questioned some of his allegations and defended its work, calling it essential to combating a dangerous parasite.
Rep. Mike Bishop, a Republican representing Michigan’s 8th District, announced Tuesday that he had sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, citing concerns about how cats and kittens are being used at the USDA.
According to the letter, Bishop says that his office reviewed documents about a research project on toxoplasmosis conducted at the USDA’s Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.
The procedure involves breeding hundreds of kittens, feeding them parasite-infected raw meat for two to three weeks and then killing them by incineration, the letter states.
“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.
“Any government research program like this one that’s been funded since the Nixon administration needs to be put under the microscope, especially when it involves using kittens as disposable test tubes in harmful tests that most taxpayers oppose.”
In his letter, Bishop states that the USDA protocol indicates that cats fed the meat do not become sick.
He asks that the USDA answer to the project history, cost to taxpayers, number of kittens and cats used, pain reporting and alternatives to tests and incineration of kittens, like adoption.
In a statement Tuesday, Kim Kaplan of the USDA wrote in an email that the use of cats is “essential to the success of this critical research,” and that “the estimate of 100 cats used in the research … is a serious overestimation.”
Cats cannot be adopted out, Kaplan explained, because of the risks they would pose to adoptive families. Toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite that can be transmitted via contact with infected feline feces.
“Women newly infected with toxoplasma during pregnancy and anyone with a compromised immune system should be aware that toxoplasmosis can have severe consequences,” Kaplan wrote. Infected infants, for instance, can suffer eye or brain damage. Others can develop blindness or mental disabilities.
The USDA’s statement did not specifically address Bishop’s allegations of incineration, but did say the lab “complies with best management practices in animal research.”
WTOP’s Jack Moore contributed to this report.