A new, arcane federal regulation regarding cats and dogs has sparked the latest round of wrangling between medical researchers and animal-rights activists.
But researchers say it is much ado about nothing because the rule is misunderstood and doesn't apply, pragmatically speaking, to the Salt Lake Valley.Under a regulation that went into effect Feb. 15, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented part of the Animal Welfare Act of 1990 by ordering all animals kept in public shelters be held five days, including a Saturday, before being sold to middlemen with plans to sell them in turn to medical-research facilities.
The new rule triggered a swift but quiet reaction among small-city governments worried that it would drive up their animal-control costs.
In recent weeks, Sandy, Riverton, Murray, West Jordan, South Jordan and Midvale endorsed a resolution to change a state law that requires dog pounds to release animals on demand to research institutions. The logic behind the endorsements was that if local animal shelters were allowed to decide for themselves whether to sell animals to medical-research facilities, they could sidestep the requirement for holding animals longer by opting to get out of the animals-for-research business entirely.
The cost of sheltering animals for up to six days could amount to untold thousands of public dollars, said Midvale City Council member JoAnn Seghini, who noted that some 45,000 lost or stray animals are housed and then euthanized each year by pounds in Salt Lake County alone. The federal government estimates the new regulation could cost local shelters $7 to $14 per animal.
"If we keep them two extra days, that's an increased cost of $560,000," said Seghini, who noted some local shelters require animals be kept only three days. She said the rule might also force animal shelters to expand.
But the effort to revise state law is misguided, said Dr. Jack Taylor, Director of Animal Resources at the University of Utah, by far the biggest local user of animals for research purposes.
"These people need to learn how to read federal law," said Taylor. "It doesn't apply because the law was aimed at people who go around to shelters and buy animals to sell for research."
Dr. Norm Erekson, an assistant state veterinarian at the Department of Agriculture, said Taylor's reading of the law seems correct.
Animal buyers like those described in the regulation are "Class C" dealers, defined by federal regulations as "such individuals (who) do not usually take actual physical possession or control of the animals, and do not usually hold animals in any facilities," according to Erekson.
None of the shelters along the Wasatch Front do business with such dealers, according to Taylor, and of the four Utah research facilities that take animals from shelters - the university, the Veterans Administration Medical Center, Brigham Young University and a private Salt Lake City company called UBTL - none resell them.
Taylor said he suspected the resolution drafted by the cities was orchestrated by animal-rights activists as a "backdoor attempt" to stop "pound seizure," the term for mandatory seizure of animals in public shelters.
Seghini, who is on the board of directors of the Humane Society of Utah, said the fear of the cost to cities was the impetus.
She said that if she discerns that the regulation doesn't include research facilities in its definition of "dealers," she will drop the effort to have the resolution forwarded to the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which lobbies the Legislature on behalf of municipalities.
"We need to have some kind of ruling from the USDA," she said. "If the institution is considered a dealer, we have a problem; if not, there's not a problem."
The USDA guideline is meant to protect lost animals whose owners are looking for them. Animal researchers say that although such occasions are rare, pet owners have been known to trace their lost animals to facilities where they have become research subjects.
Utah is one of only four states that requires public pounds to allow research facilities to take animals. In Utah, such seizures cost the research facilities $15-$20, which is paid to the shelter. In 14 states, "mandatory pound seizure" is outlawed.
Taylor said the use of animals in medical research is vital to health care among humans.