Cats:   Free to a Good Home

By Pat Miller

"Cats: Free to good home-3 adults & kittens. Call XXXXXXXXX"

How often have we seen this kind of ad in the newspaper? Are we aware of the hazards it represents?

More than a decade ago, as part of my humane officer training, I toured the prestigious Stanford University research facility in Palo Alto, Ca. It was a difficult assignment at best. Even as my intellectual side reluctantly acknowledged the contributions that animal research has arguably made to the quality of human life, my compassionate, "respect for all life" side questioned the necessity of animal research, and shuddered at the sight of intelligent, sentient creatures held captive in research cages. They looked so utterly helpless and hopeless. I imagined their interminable days of inescapable boredom punctuated by interludes with the researcher’ knife and needle. It was a powerful, depressing experience.

The topic of animal research is best not introduced at a cordial cocktail party. Feelings run strong on both sides of the issue and heated social debate rarely sways believers on either side from their vehemently defended positions. Regardless of their feelings about the use of animals in research, however, most cat owners cringe at the thought of their own feline companions ending up in a research lab. What they may not realize is that this is more possible than they might imagine.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-the organization charged with enforcing the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which alleges to protect animals used in research-24,712 live cats were used in research last year. In addition, between 20,000 and 50,000 dead cats are supplied annually for dissection in high school and college biology classes. That’s a lot of cats.


Some are "purpose-bred," that is, bred in a licensed facility specifically for use in laboratories. Many others are "random-source," meaning that they are acquired from a variety of sources. They may be purchased from animal shelters, fraudulently obtained from "free-to-good-home" ads, stolen from back yards and barns, bought at Midwestern animal sales an auctions, or petnapped as strays on the streets of your town. While a purpose-bred cat suffers much physical pain as a random-source cat, the random-source cats are usually someone’s lost, stolen or abandoned pets-accustomed to the comforts of home and human care. These cats are much more likely to suffer psychological as well as the physical pain of the experiments themselves.

In Defense of Animals (IDA) was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1983 to call public attention to animal experimentation. IDA actively opposes using animals in research.

President and founder Elliott Katz, DMV, says, "Cats are used a lot in brain-related research. They are cheaper {read more expendable} and easier to handle than primates, and have ‘somewhat similar’ brains. Current studies include vision research being done at UC Berkeley California, in which kittens’ eyes are sewn shut or they are reared in total darkness in order to observe the resulting changes in the brain."

Other examples of experiments using cats include sleep deprivation studies, studies of brain function that incorporate the implantation of electrodes in cats’ heads; neurological studies that require the amputation of cats toes, and intubation training for medical technicians. Even the world-famous Boys’ Town, home for troubled boys, was conducting starvation experiments on cats until recent exposure by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) shut them down.

We will spare the Whole Cat Journal readers the graphic details and gruesome photos of these experiments. Chances are good that if you are o the mailing list of one or more animal protection groups who campaign against animal experimentation, such as PETA and IDA, you’ve already seen them.

Regardless of their feelings about animal research, it should be of great concern to cat lovers that their own beloved family felines can end up as the subjects of those gruesome photos. In the case of random-source cats, the lab itself is not even necessarily the greatest danger. The road to that lab is along and rocky one, filled with horror, pain and suffering.


Once applied only to jurisdictions where surrender of shelter animals to research labs was mandated by law, the term "pound seizure" is now used more generically to mean any release of shelter animals for the use of research. Some shelters still labor under local laws that require the release of animals for research purposes. Others, fortunately a minority, voluntarily sell animals for research. Usually (although not exclusively) these are government-run municipal facilities that regard the sale of animals as a necessary source of income to offset the costs of animal control programs. While these operations may look upon their unwanted/unclaimed animals as a valuable resource to be exploited, most shelters consider the sale of animals for research purposes to be abhorrent, a violation of the public trust and of a shelter’s philosophical commitment to the animals.

There are also relatively rare documented cases of shelter workers who have made under-the-table deals to sell shelter animals for research.


The national shelter reclaim rate for stray cats averages a pitiful 1.5 to 2 percent for many reasons. Some shelters have no required holding period for cats at all. Those that do generally hold them as stray for only 48-72 hours. Many cat owners, especially those who haven’t bothered to spay or neuter or put collars and I.D. tags on their cats, have a dangerously casual attitude about Felix’s comings and goings. If the cat is gone for a few days, he must be out "catting around." By the time they decide that Felix is really missing, his 72 hours at the shelter may long be over. Felix could be dead on the shelter’s euthanasia room floor or on his way to a research lab.

At a majority of shelters, only if he is extremely lucky is he made available for adoption an subsequently placed in a home. Even that, however, may be no guarantee of Felix’s safety. Progressive shelters set adoption fees (including spay/neuter deposits) high enough that it isn’t economically feasible for ‘bunchers’ to adopt them under false pretenses for sale to research. (Bunchers are people who gather dogs and cats from various sources for sale to Class B dealers who are licensed to sell random-source animals to research facilities.) Some shelters still hand over a cat for $5 to the first comer, no questions asked.

At the other end of the lost cat equation are owners who give up too soon. They visit the shelter a few times in the first week or two, but quickly decide that Felix is gone for good, and during their next visit to the shelter, adopt a new kitten to take his place. Meanwhile, Felix is hanging out in a neighborhood several blocks away after being chased by a stray dog. Six weeks later, when one of the neighbors finally realizes that no one is feeding him, Felix is captured and taken to the shelter where, because his owners have long since stopped looking, he faces the same unhappy possible fates.

Of course, in most places owner-surrendered cats don’t have a holding time at all. There is nothing to stop a shelter that practices pound seizures from selling Felix for research the same day he is given up by the owner who no longer wants him.


Another common source of research cats is the "free-to-a-good-home" ad, an unfortunate American tradition resulting from the pet overpopulation problem. According to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) in its 1997 book the Animal Dealers, some bunchers and dealers are known to have routinely obtained dodgs and cats from such ads illegally and fraudulently, by assuring the owner that they will provide the pet with a loving home. This practice is widely recognized by many community newspapers, which often print warnings in their pet columns about giving pets away to "good homes." Bunchers and dealers have been exposed and/or prosecuted for such practices over the past 15 years.

For example, AWI says that "Barbara Linville reportedly acquired dogs and cats through "free to good home" ads. In a little over a year’s time, Linville acquired 567 dogs and 117 cats through newspaper advertisements."

Animal protection workers repeatedly warn pet owners not to give their animals away, but rather to charge an adoption fee sufficient to discourage bunchers. Obviously, warinings of nespapers and humane groups all to often go unheeded.


The business of stealing pets for research purposes is also alive and well. Many dealers have also been investigated by the USDA for allegedly stealing animals or knowingly receiving stolen animals.

Because cats, even more than dogs, are commonly allowed to roam freely, they are easy victims of theft. Laboratories want animals who are friendly and easy to handle, so the free-roaming cat who walks right up to a stranger on the street is a prime target. A 1994 investigation conducted by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) uncovered a horrific trade in cats from Mexicali, Mexico, 10 miles south of the U.S. border, for the biological supply company dissection market. In January 1994, Mexican officials intercepted a truck carrying 2,000 dead cats, ultimately bound for the United States via a Mexican supply company known as PARMEESA.

Subsequent investigation determined that the cats were obtained from the streets of Mexicali and other Mexican towns. The common method of "euthanasia" at PARMEESA was reportedly by drowning. One year after WSPA’s investigation, Mexico made it a violation of federal law to kill a domestic pet unless the animal is suffering as a result of an accident, disease, physical incapacity or extreme age, or if the animal poses a threat to human health. WSPA is currently working to add a provision to the Animal Welfare Act that would prohibit the importation of animals into the United States who were not legally obtained or humanely euthanized.


There may be disagreement about whether companion animals should be used for research, but ther is widespread consensus that animals destined for laboratories should be humanely treated. Unfortunately this is far from reality. USDA records document endless violations of the AWA animal care provisions. Rarely is action taken against the violator. Even after multiple warnings for repeated egregious violations over a period of several years, sometimes decades, the most common sanction is an insignificant fine that a dealer can easily write off as the cost of doing business. The dealer pays the fine and continues with business as usual, knowing that it will more than likely be several years more before the system catches up with him again. The stories of neglect, abuse and cruelty in Class B facilities ar chilling.

As a result of repeated complaints, Ervin Stebane’s Circle S Ranch outside Kakauna, WI, was reportedly under USDA scrutiny for more than 25 years. Between 1980 and 1986 alone, USDA cited Stebane 27 times for improper and inadequate housing, 17 times for not providing palatable food and water, and 11 times for inadequate sanitation and waste disposal. According to agency reports, inspectors found dogs and cats in outside cages in all seasons, without any protection from sub-freezing temperatures, snow, rain or sun. On at least one occasion, kittens were left outside, tied in a feed sack.

Although investigations and legal proceeding documented the conditions at Stebane’s "ranch" back to 1960, Stebane did not permanently relinquish his Class B dealer license until March 1994. However, by relinquishing the license, he was not admitting nor denying guilt.

If Stebane wre the exception to the rule perhaps we could shrug it off. Unfortunately, he’s not. USDA inspection reports record an endless litany of animal abuse at various facilities: "The white cat was dehydrated-no fluids had been given." "I observed several dogs and cats, which were either dead, dying, or extremely ill." "All cats are in poor condition physically. One cat was dead in the box." "Four cats have severely injured an/or infected right eyes." "None of the cats have water." "One cat is held in a burlap bag."

When reading these reports, one has to wonder how any cats make it alive to an actual research facility. In fact, the numbers of animals sold to facilities (and the incomes derived from them) are impressive. According to AWI, Raymond Eldridge of Barnhart, Miss., last licensed in 1996, sold approximately 1,300 animals a year, grossing $458,183. This is just one of many examples. Class B dealers operate in 23 states and the 25,000 live cats used in research last year are just the tip of the iceberg. Dealer recordkeeping is notoriously wretched, and no one really knows how many cats and kittens suffer and die before they ever make it to the labs.


The research community is a huge monolith with vast political influence. While an individual cat owner may not be able to make significant changes in public policy, there are things that she can do to protect her own cats and contribute to social change. Her are some suggestions:

Keep our cats indoors only. (Protecting them from research is only one of many compelling reasons to have indoor-only cats).

Have a collar and I.D. tag on your cat at all times. Even if your cat is indoors-only, identification will greatly improve the odds of her being returned to you if she inadvertently slips out an open door or escapes during a disaster. This is a good way to avert a one-way trip to the animal shelter.

Microchip your cat as back-up insurance. Collars and tags can come off or be deliberately removed. Microchips are permanent. An increasing number of shelters are routinely scanning incoming animals for chips. Some lags will also scan for microchips and attempt to contact owners of chipped animals prior to using them in experiments.

If your cat is missing, check with all area shelters immediately, and ask each one how long the holding periods are. Religiously check each shelter in person often enough that you will recover your cat if she ends up at one of them. Don’t rely on shelter personnel to tell you if your cat is there, even if she was wearing I.D. and you left a detailed lost report. Keep looking for a long tie. Some lost cats have been recovered as long as six months to a year after they first went missing.

Work with your local shelter(s) to enhance their lost and found programs. Volunteers can crossmatch lost reports with descriptions of incoming animals and those on incoming found reports. Once such program, at the Marin Humane Society in Novato, CA, was partially responsible (along with microchipping) for increasing a relatively impressive 7 percent cat reclaim rate to an unheard of 20 percent in just a few years.

Find out if your local shelter(s) sell to research. If they do, mount a campaign to get them to change their practices. Start by meeting with the agency administrator or board of directors, and be prepared to take the campaign public if you are met with resistance.

Check with your local newspaper. If the paper runs "free-to-food-home" ads, ask them to stop, and explain why. (Some newspapers have aupolicy prohibiting such ads.) If they won’t stop, ask them to at least print a warning in the "Pets" column similar to the example on page 10.

Using the Freedom of Information Act and/or the web sites listed under Resources on the back page of this issue, find out form the USDA if there are any Class B dealers in your area. Obtain inspection reports and determine if there are problems with the facility. If so, be persistent about insisting that action is taken.

Although it is kept very low-key, some research facilities are willing to release animals who are no longer useful to the lab to local adoption agencies for private placement. Find out from the USDA if there are any animals research facilities in your area, especially universities, and quietly work to see if such an arrangement can be made.

California Civil Code Section 1834.7 requires any shelter that turns animals over to research to post a sign stating "animals Turned Into This Shelter May Be Used For Research Purposes." Work at either the local or state level to pass a law requiring the same in your area.

Contact on or more of the several organizations listed on the back page of this issue under "Resources." Check out their materials, practices, goals and philosophies and decide if you want to support their activities.

You may not be able to halt the use of companion animals in research. You may not even want to. But you can protect your own cats, and you can help improve the conditions for those animals who ostensibly and without any say in the matter give their lives for ours.


U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal Welfare Information Center 301-504-6212


USDA APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service)


In Defense of Animals 415-388-9641


People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals 757-622-PETA


Last Chance for Animals 310-271-6096


World Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals 800-883-WSPA


Animal Welfare Institute 202-337-2332


American Anti-Vivisection Society 215-887-0816


National Anti-Vivisection Society 800-888-NAVS


New England Anti-Vivisection Society 617-523-6020



Draper, Mary Ellen, editor, the Animal Dealers: Evidence of Abuse of Animals in the Commercial Trade 1952-1997, Animal Welfare Institute, 1997

Reitman, Judith, Stolen for Profit, Kensington books, 1995



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