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Washington — Kittens and cupcakes appear to be the purr-fect combination to bring animal welfare advocates and Capitol Hill staffers out in droves.

Dozens turned out for the cuteness overload at a Thursday event promoting a bill to end painful cat testing at a Department of Agriculture laboratory in Maryland.

The kitten fanatics gobbled up 150 cupcakes from Whole Foods and shot photos of the 8-week-old fuzzballs — Anya, Rizzo and Leeni.

The trio appeared oblivious to the fuss while playing and pouncing on one another on the Rayburn House Office Building foyer. 

"We have them here to represent the kittens at the USDA labs," said Hannah Shaw, who calls herself the Kitten Lady and runs a kitten rescue organization. 

"They test on them when they reach about eight weeks and kill them when they reach three months. Hopefully, these people connect how small and vulnerable and adoptable these kittens are." 

The event followed revelations last month about taxpayer-funded experiments for a research project that has led to the deaths of 221 healthy cats in the last five years. The annual cost of the federal project is $624,000.

The Agricultural Research Service has defended the tests as important to both human health and food safety, crediting the research with helping to cut the prevalence of the common parasite that causes the disease toxoplasmosis.

Critics, including Republican Rep. Mike Bishop of Rochester, question why the research service destroys the animals after two weeks — given that the kittens are treatable — rather than put them up for adoption.

Bishop introduced the KITTEN Act last month with Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-California, to prohibit the Agriculture Department's breeding, use and disposal of cats in "painful or stressful" testing procedures. It's gained 20 co-sponsors in two weeks. 

U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved an spending bill with similar language expressing concern about the "painful" cat experiments. 

Bishop said Thursday he hopes the legislation will be taken up by the House Appropriations Committee as well. 

"We've started the de-funding process," he said. "We control the purse strings. And if there's an expenditure out there that's objectionable, it's our responsibility to step up and do something about it."

Government records indicate that kittens bred at the government lab in Beltsville, Maryland, are fed parasite-infected raw meat for two to three weeks to collect parasites from their feces, then euthanized and discarded by incineration.

Bishop is concerned that other animals might be subjected to similar treatment and is asking the Agriculture Department for more information. 

"We need to drill down and ask more specific questions," he said. "I find it all very disturbing and want to make sure we know all that's going on."

mburke@detroitnews.com

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