It’s no fun being a laboratory animal. Whether you’re a rabbit or a guinea pig or a lowly mouse, you’re liable to get pumped full of saccharine, force-fed mascara, exposed to carcinogens, doped with narcotics, soaked in toxins, dissected, bisected, decapitated, and otherwise mistreated. But while guinea pigs and their ilk are at least spared the further ignominy of coming home to cramped, filthy accommodations, rats awaiting early experimental deaths have no such consolation under existing federal rules.

Now, however, salvation is in sight for the little critters. A group of animal-rights activists led by Georgetown University’s Barbara Orlans is aiming to overturn the laboratory apartheid and give the rat a decent standard of living—a decent standard of living, that is, until some scientist sticks a needle in its eye. Orlans, a senior research fellow at Georgetown’s Kennedy School of Ethics, is leading a petition drive to close a loophole in the 1966 Animal Rights Act, which she says denies laboratory rats, mice, and small birds the rights afforded larger lab animals.

The act officially sets standards—such as minimum cage size, sanitation requirements, food guidelines, and anesthesia requirements—for laboratory mammals. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided years ago that the act’s interpretation of “mammal” does not include rats, mice, and birds. While rats don’t have to drink out of separate water fountains, the determination essentially allows their evil scientific masters to keep them in the most squalid of pre-experimental conditions.

Orlans and a long list of animal-rights activists have the temerity to insist that because rats are vertebrates that nourish their young with milk secreted by mammary glands and have skin more or less covered by hair, they should be allowed into the mammal club, with all its perks.

According to Orlans, the petition is more than an effort to make sure scientists give a rat enough cage space before injecting three pounds of bug spray into its heart. The Animal Welfare Act also establishes committees at research institutions that are supposed to ensure that there is some purpose to the injection, and that the other minimum standards in the law are met.

USDA officials say that they just don’t have the cash to treat rats like mammals. Jerry DePoyster of the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service says that expanding rats’ rights would cost the service more than one-third of its annual $9.2 million budget. “We really have no way to do it properly,” DePoyster says—unless Congress decides that oppressed rats are a high agenda item next fiscal year, right after saving Social Security and Medicare.

When the USDA released Orlans’ petition for public comment Jan. 28, the agency included the statement “We believe the cost of extending…enforcement to all entities and facilities that handle rats of the genus Rattus…would be substantial.”

It’s not that the USDA has anything against rats, says DePoyster. “They make good pets, actually,” he says. “They are an animal, with feelings. People want to see their welfare taken care of.” DePoyster argues that the National Institute of Health has basic requirements for rats, mice, and birds that equal the protections in the Animal Welfare Act. Those rules apply to any government research, as well as any private research that uses the taxpayers’ hard-earned coin.

But Orlans says private companies use untold numbers of rats for their dirty work. And, because researchers mainly experiment on rats, mice, and birds, she says the Animal Welfare Act probably helps only 10 percent of animals used in research. “Nobody knows” how many rats’ lives could be improved if the petition were successful, Orlans says.

Ironically, Orlans’ rat-rights petition is making the rounds just as her hometown is gearing up for a rodent Armageddon. No mater what the USDA says about their lab-bound cousins, it seems the welfare of city rats isn’t exactly what the municipal government has in mind. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, in fact, has decided that the only good rat is a dead rat.

After announcing—in his very first speech as mayor—that he was mulling a Final Solution, Williams is now on the verge of mounting an onslaught against D.C.’s rat population, according to city officials. In his speech, Williams jokingly gave rats “all due respect,” but it seems that this town just ain’t big enough for both of them.

“The city has declared war on rats,” confirms Williams spokesperson Peggy

Armstrong.

Orlans says that the rats in her petition are fundamentally different from D.C.’s current public enemy No. 1. “You can say, well, ‘A rat is a rat,’ but that isn’t really so,” Orlans says. “It is a completely different situation.” Laboratory rats “are not pest animals; they are domesticated animals.”

Still, given D.C.’s jihad mentality, it’s hard to see Orlans winning many local hearts and minds. In addition to citywide rat hit squads, the city has developed plans to starve the rodents and destroy their homes. City officials have set aside $800,000 for 30,000 new rat-proof trash cans. The city is also launching a series of “Rat Raids,” in which an elite group of health inspectors will storm city businesses searching for mishandled refuse and other rat-friendly conditions. Businesses will get “educational notices” the first time, but the inspectors will be back.

And this spring, the nation’s capital will be hosting the first rat summit. Officials from D.C. as well as other cities will exchange information with academics from around the country on, well, just how we can kill the bastards once and for all.

Orlans is still waiting for her invitation. The USDA, meanwhile, is accepting comments on her petition through March 28. But nobody in the debate thinks the USDA is about to give the rats their respect, meaning that rats’ rights will probably be decided in court. The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Valerie Stanley says, “I think they have made their position clear, which is that they are not [interested in] caring for these animals.” CP

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