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Washington — U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop is questioning Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue about taxpayer-funded research experiments on cats and kittens performed at a Maryland laboratory that has led to the deaths of hundreds of healthy cats.

Bishop, a Rochester Republican, wrote Monday to Perdue saying it appears the decades-old “project uses kittens as test tubes.”

He cited documents reviewed by his office showing that kittens bred at the Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory 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 says the Agriculture Department has been conducting the research since at least 1982, uses up to 100 kittens a year and was still active as of last month. The lab is a facility of the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

“As you can imagine, I was shocked to hear that the USDA, the very organization set out to enforce animal welfare laws and regulations, was treating the life of animals with such contempt,” wrote Bishop, who is not a cat owner.

Bishop acknowledged that the Agriculture Department says Toxoplasma oocysts currently can only be produced in cats, but noted that scientists elsewhere have reported on work to develop technology to replace the use of cats for this purpose.

“Put simply, it creates life to destroy life,” the congressman wrote of the project. “While I support the objective of making food safer and protecting people and animals from infectious diseases, we must ensure taxpayer dollars are used effectively, efficiently and humanely.”

A statement by the Agricultural Research Service said cats are "essential to the success of this critical research," and that the agency makes "every effort to minimize the number of cats used to produce eggs required to research one of the most widespread parasites in the world."

A USDA document describing the research says it aims in part to “assist in developing a vaccine to prevent needless suffering caused by this parasite in humans or animals.”

The agency claims research from the studies is credited with helping to cut the prevalence of the parasite by as much as 50 percent in the United States and Europe.

Bishop asked Perdue for details on the project’s cost, the number of cats or kittens used over the lifetime of the project, and whether the agency intends on renewing it at month’s end for another three years.

He also seeks an explanation for why the USDA, instead of putting the cats up for adoption, destroys the animals after two weeks, “given that the kittens being used are not sick and are treatable.”

Veterinarian groups say most cats with toxoplasmosis can recover with treatment — typically, a course of antibiotics.

The Cornell Feline Health Center says humans are more likely to become infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii by eating raw meat or unwashed fruits and vegetables, rather than from cat feces.

The statement from the Agricultural Research Service said USDA does not seek adoptions of the cats "because of the risk the cats could pose to their adoptive families."

"Our goal is to reduce the spread of toxoplasmosis. Adopting laboratory cats could, unfortunately, undermine that goal, potentially causing severe infections, especially with unborn children or those with immunodeficiencies. ARS regularly inspects research animals and complies complies with best management practices in animal research," the statement said.

The agency called the estimate of 100 cats used in the research is a "serious overestimation."

That figure came from a document dated May 2015 laying out the laboratory's official protocol for animal use in the project, estimating that 300 cats would be used over a three-year period.

The watchdog group White Coat Waste Project, which targets taxpayer-funded animal experiments as wasteful, uncovered details of the kitten research through public records requests.

Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy for the White Coat Waste Project, thanked Bishop for seeking answers from the Agriculture Department.

“This secretive facility is essentially a USDA kitten slaughterhouse that’s been breeding and needlessly killing thousands of cats for decades at great expense to Americans and without their knowledge,” Goodman said in a statement. “This government waste and abuse belongs in the litter box of history.”

Bishop has sponsored bipartisan legislation to require federal agencies to disclose data on how many and what type of animals they’re using for scientific testing. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, is also a co-sponsor of the Federal Accountability in Chemical Testing (FACT) Act.

Bishop also has pushed to end funding of painful experiments on dogs by a handful of Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. Bishop, a dog owner, was part of an effort to defund the VA canine experiments as part of the federal spending bill earlier this year, according to his office.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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