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Lawmakers push for more transparency with university animal testing facilities

Bills to increase transparency within public college and university animal testing facilities advanced in the General Assembly, but with amendments.

Capital News Service



By Alyssa Hutton

Bills to increase transparency within public college and university animal testing facilities advanced in the General Assembly, but with amendments.

Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, introduced Senate Bill 411 to require animal testing facilities to submit an annual report to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The report would include information about the number and species of animals used, including those not covered by the federal Animal Welfare Act, and the cost of experiments.

The measure also capped Freedom of Information Act records requests at $25.

The amended bill will instead create a task force that looks for potential deficiencies at public animal testing facilities and makes any needed recommendations to increase public transparency. Recommendations could include situations of noncompliance with federal regulations and details about the facility care, use and number of animals. The report will be due by November.

Representatives such as lawmakers, universities and unaffiliated animal welfare groups will sit on the task force, in addition to members from the Virginia Press Association and Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

The substitute is a compromise between stakeholders, animal protection groups and higher education institutions, Boysko said at a finance committee meeting. Several universities testified against the bill at a previous subcommittee hearing, based on its financial impact and “significant burden.”

Animals covered by the federal AWA include dogs, cats, monkeys, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits or other warm-blooded animals, alive or dead. The task force would also require information about animals not covered by the AWA, such as birds, rats and mice bred for research and some farm animals.

“We have grave concern about the time and effort that this would take us to provide and put in the public sphere and it has not been articulated to us what the actual goal of this legislation is besides just transparency,” said Ross Grogg with Kemper Consulting, on behalf of Eastern Virginia Medical School at the subcommittee meeting.

There’s no centralized mechanism to count all species of animals across facilities, according to Elizabeth Hooper, who spoke for Virginia Tech.

“I appreciate what the senator is trying to do, we’ve done a lot in this area, we’re very proud of that,” Hooper said. “Unfortunately, we do think that this would be very challenging for us to do and it would be very costly for us to do.”

“Maybe we can take one step at a time,” Boysko said in response.

Facilities usually keep an approximate census count of the species not reported under the AWA. Co-patron Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin County, said the bill just asked to post publicly the internal counts already kept by the facilities.

Representatives from many of the state’s public universities testified in opposition to the original bill.

The estimated university fiscal impact ranged from $200,000 to $1.84 million, before the bill was amended. The costs would be to reconfigure or obtain additional software and hire at least one full-time employee to manage the new duties.

The amended bill will have no fiscal impact, Boysko said.

SB 411 passed the Senate unanimously. Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, introduced the related House Bill 580. Similar changes were made to that bill, which passed the House 56-43.

“There are many people who are concerned about animal welfare, and they’re taxpayers and they are community members and they have the right to know how public funds are being spent at public universities,” Simonds said.

Boysko passed a bipartisan transparency measure with Stanley during the 2023 legislative session. The bill required animal testing facilities to annually post documents of their use of AWA animals, and inspection reports.

That bill was watered down before it passed, according to Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice president of cruelty investigations with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The group had hoped to get the count of all animals and species last year, and tried again this year.

“The public does not know how many animals they have, what kind of animals they have, what kind of experiments they use them for, even though the public funds the very existence of these facilities,” Nachminovitch said.

The state requires animal control officers and animal rescue agencies to annually submit custody records, including totals of animals euthanized. This is basic information that Virginians have a right to expect, Nachminovitch said.

“I think a lot of people would be quite upset to learn what happens behind closed doors of laboratories,” Nachminovitch said. “If we can just shine a light on and increase transparency, especially for those facilities that are funded with our taxpayer dollars, that would be a good start.”

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