The U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in southern Nebraska devotes itself to scientific experiments on animals aimed at reducing the cost and increasing the production of meat. Whistleblower James Keen, a scientist and veterinarian who worked at the center for 24 years, blew the whistle on the center’s appalling practices by taking his story to the New York Times. The New York Times conducted an investigation of the taxpayer-financed center, revealing tales of animal abuse and bizarre experiments that other centers will not do or are not allowed to do.
The center has about 30,000 cows, pigs, and sheep, tended by about 44 scientists, 73 technicians and other support workers. Routine care has fallen short. The shelter for the animals is substandard, even by factory farm standards, and since 1985, 6,500 animals have starved to death, several hundred piglets have been crushed to death by their mothers because their cages are too small, and an easily treatable infection has killed more than 625 animals. Humane handling of animals is also severely lacking. In one instance, animals headed to surgery fell from carts or were pushed to the floor by their handlers, while two workers in the operating room sat back and ate doughnuts. The list goes on.
As for the experiments, the scientists, who do not have medical degrees, essentially have carte blanche to operate and conduct experiments. Some of the trials have continued long after meat producers balked at the harm they caused animals. Others exposed animals to extremely rough handling that left them permanently harmed or dead. Mr. Keen said “most Americans and even livestock producers would be hard pressed to support some of the things that the center has done.”
In one experiment, the researchers tested whether it could breed a sheep that would survive without human help. The scientists knew that, even under the best conditions, sheep are notorious for abandoning newborns if they are not kept together for a couple of days to bond. The scientists sent newborn lambs into a large pasture to see if the mother sheep would respond to the lambs’ desperate cries for care. The sheep, predictably, ignored them. And the scientists did too. The so-called experiment went on for four years and hundreds of newborn lambs died in the process. Michael L. Thonney, a Cornell professor of animal science has conducted similar research, but with a sharp difference: any lamb that appeared to be abandoned was grabbed and nursed to health. As to the Nebraska center experiment, he said “there is no reason to allow animals to have that kind of suffering.”
In another experiment, the center was able to breed a leaner pig, but these pigs were so low in fat that one in five females could not reproduce. The center’s solution was to operate on pigs’ ovaries and brains in an attempt to make them more fertile. Other experiments have been aimed at forcing cows to produce twins, which have a whole host of associated problems, including deformities and a newborn death rate more than four times that of single calves. That project continued for over 30 years with no change in results.
The center makes few efforts to reduce animal suffering during surgery, trials, or even during a routine day. Just last year, a veterinarian proposed an experiment to find a more effective pain medication for tail removal and castration, two common procedures performed on sheep. The budget was tiny, just over $3,000. The proposal was turned down by the center’s sheep expert, explaining, in part, that the center lacked the expertise to assess the pain felt by animals.
As for how the center gets away with it all, farm animals used in research to benefit agriculture are exempt from the Animal Welfare Act. So although animal abuse is policed on farms and in private medical research, the kind of “research” conducted at the Nebraska center is not. There is some oversight by the US Department of Agriculture, but as the NYT investigation revealed, the oversight is so minimal it hardly exists at all.
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