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Animals used in research are, like all animals, considered property under the law. In the case of animals used in science, the actual protections offered under the law are scant even though numerous federal regulations purport to protect their interests.

Many people believe that a federal law, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), protects animals against abuse and harm in the laboratory or in other areas of commerce. This is not true. The Animal Welfare Act regulates the use of animals in research; it does not protect animals or prohibit their use for any type of research purpose. It could, however, be said to protect the research industry’s use of animals in research and other commercial purposes.

Under the provisions of the AWA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is required to publish a report on animals used in research, excluding mice, rats and birds, which are not covered under the AWA.  The number of animals includes those being used for basic research, breeding, experimentation, product testing, pharmaceutical testing and even veterinary procedures for the benefit of the animals. The reporting process does not distinguish how they are being used, but simply tallies the number of animals by species used in “research” by each registered research facility, as well as if they are subjected to procedures that cause pain and distress. In 2014, NAVS submitted a petition for rulemaking that would change the reporting process to include more meaningful data, including how animals are actually being used.  The proposed changes have not yet been adopted.

The AWA also established a requirement that Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) be established in every institution conducting research in order to review proposed research protocols and assess whether the welfare of the animals is being considered. Research proposals submitted to an IACUC must include the consideration of alternative methods to any proposed animal use. IACUCs are also charged with ensuring that these protocols are followed and that the facilities maintain a minimum standard of care for animal welfare.

As a result of the passage of the AWA, animal dealers were required to be licensed, with breeders applying for a Class A license and animal dealers selling other animals applying for a Class B license. These Class B dealers sell animals from random sources, including pounds, shelters, individual owners, puppy mills and even “free-to-a-good-home” ads.  While dealers are required by law to account for the source of their animals, pet theft allegedly continues to be a source of these animals.

While the AWA does not require that non-animal methods be adopted by any researcher, the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods (ICCVAM) was established to help further the acceptance of test methods that reduce, refine or replace animals for research and testing. ICCVAM was established as a permanent committee in 2000 under the National Toxicology Program Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods. Together they seek widespread regulatory acceptance of validated toxicological testing methods among government agencies and in the private sector.

The response by federal legislators to radical efforts by activists to break into labs to free animals from their cages, to damage or destroy property or equipment, or threaten researchers or businesses that do business with research facilities resulted in the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. This law establishes more severe penalties for these felonies and threatens the First Amendment rights of all advocates by punishing otherwise lawful protests as acts of terrorism. This law makes it more difficult for vocal opponents of animal research to express their outrage over the treatment of animals in labs

Many legal actions, including legislation, litigation and regulations, have been used over the years in an attempt to free animals from research. The most successful effort, of which NAVS played a significant part, has been in passage of the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act in 2000 and the subsequent retirement of chimpanzees from research. Through the use of all of these channels, as well as by promoting a major change in policy by the National Institutes of Health (which funded most research on chimpanzees), a majority of these great apes are finally free—and promising progress to retire the remainder of chimpanzees is on the horizon.

Most state animal cruelty laws exempt animals used for research, testing and experimentation. A few states have included language that can be used to charge facilities or individual workers in laboratories with violations of anti-cruelty laws, but only when the animals are not actively being used during a research protocol. Alleged abuse of animals in the laboratory during the course of an experiment would have to be addressed through the federal regulatory system.

In some states, laboratories can demand that a publicly operated animal control facility turn over their unwanted or unclaimed animals for use in research. The practice, called pound seizure, is no longer as prevalent as it once was and some states have restricted it altogether.  And while NAVS works to bring about an end to animal experimentation, we are also leading an effort to make cats and dogs that are currently being used by publicly funded university and research laboratories available for adoption as an alternative to euthanasia.

Legal action by informed advocates for animals and humane science will continue to be an effective means to advance greater compassion, respect and justice for animals. To learn more ways you can help advocate for animals, sign up to receive our free weekly Take Action Thursday e-newsletter.