If you were to reflect on important events that occurred in 1966, a legal decision handed down that year had such impact as to influence the conduct of our society every day thereafter. History buffs may think I’m referring to the Supreme Court decision in the case of Miranda v. Arizona which protected the rights of the accused, and introduced the Miranda warning. While this was undeniably monumental and provided necessary protections within the criminal justice system, it was not the only important safeguard measure enacted that year. For animals, the critically significant Public Law 89-544 was signed into existence on August 24, 1966. It is more familiar to us as the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).
This original AWA responded to societal concerns about the treatment of animals, specifically defining how dogs, cats, and certain other animals would be procured, transported, and used for research, among other things. To this day, the AWA is the only federal law describing the requirements for how animals are to be treated in the United States of America; its enforcement falls to the United States Department of Agriculture. Given its critical importance in providing direction and protection for animals, it is no surprise that the AWA has changed over time to remain current with societal standards and to address new concerns as they arise.
The AWA has been amended seven times since 1966, with each change providing greater clarity of expectations and expansion of coverage. In 1985, the Improved Standards for Laboratory Animals Act amendment provided additional direction on standards for sanitation, housing, and ventilation for lab animals. Exercise requirements for dogs and the promotion of psychological well-being in nonhuman primates were other key changes. The Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) was introduced and described, and so many things considered standard practices of IACUCs today—such as the minimization of pain and distress, and the consideration of alternatives to painful procedures—were written into law in this amendment.
The AWA has been criticized by some who focus on its limitations. For instance, it does not cover birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus—animals common to research. However, many other policies and guidance documents provide standards and expectations to supplement those found in the AWA and cover additional species. These include the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, the Guide for the Care and Use of Agricultural Animals in Research and Teaching, and the U.S. Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Used in Testing, Research and Training.
Another criticism is that the AWA "only" describes the minimum expected standards for facilities, husbandry, transport, and veterinary care. One can argue, convincingly, that laws are not the sole motivation that drives animal care and use professionals to make appropriate decisions about animal care and well-being. The AWA ensures action will be taken against those who do not meet minimum standards. Yet, many individuals and institutions exceed the Act’s expectations each day in their conduct and care. They strive to surpass the idea of ‘minimally acceptable’ and exemplify what is infinitely possible with continued refinement and dedication to best practices in every aspect of their work with animals. Their choices have nothing to do with legality and everything to do with an enduring commitment to animal welfare.
When we look back years from now, we’ll know the outcomes of current discussions related to the Animal Welfare Act. Rather than exercise our right to remain silent, the AWA reminds us of our duty to be vocal about how we can best provide high quality care to our animals while furthering improvements in human and animal health. The two are not mutually exclusive. New standards will be based on the changing values of society, and as knowledgeable members of that group, we must listen closely and contribute to the conversation to keep the Animal Welfare Act robust and applicable for decades to come.
By Angela Craig, DVM, lab animal veterinarian and institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC) member at the University of Minnesota