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Legislative History of the Animal Welfare Act: Introduction

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By: Benjamin Adams, B.S. and Jean Larson, M.S.
USDA. NAL. Animal Welfare Information Center

Animal in law in ages past
Since humans emerged as hunter-gathers and evolved into members of agriculture-based settled communities, they have been interacting with animals either as prey or as domesticated species. With the process of domestication, many cultures around the world developed codes, laws, and regulations that dealt with those animals considered culturally important. According to Paul (1986, Part I, p. 13)

"All of these codes are the philosophical foundation for the development of laws that protect animals as property. They limit liability for the owner or for the animal. They set forth rules regarding the theft of animals, the use of animals in the punishment and execution of criminals or traitors, religious sacrifice, and provide for the legal standing of animals. The predominate rationale in these codes is based on the protection of property, the protection of the owner's investment, and sanctions imposed by society for violating its notions of justice. These factors are not surprising if one considers the importance of animals to the early agricultural societies."

Paul also notes that “animals belonging to the temple, church or king had an exalted status because of their "inherent sacredness.” Note that in his three-part series on the origins of laws and codes, Paul provides a brief overview of some of the laws and codes developed from ancient times to the present.

It is useful to know the deep roots of animal use laws and codes in many societies. Documentation of the use of animals as experimental subjects in the pursuit of knowledge in ancient times, however, is limited by the documentation that survives. There are a number of documents from the famous Greek philosophers and natural historians. Aristotle (384 -322 B.C ) wrote many books including some that contain descriptions of a wide variety of animals that must have been written through the purposeful dissection of species. One of his followers, Erasistratus, also wrote from direct observations. Galen the Physician (126- ca216) dissected animals (pigs, Barbary apes, and other animals) to gain knowledge of the functions of the kidney and spinal cord and similarities between humans and the other mammalian species that people came in contact with. The term vivisection was used to describe his use of live animals in surgeries. It is interesting to note that Roman law prevented Galen from the dissection of human cadavers which led to errors about human anatomy in his writings.

The use of animals in research in the 1600s in Europe expanded as people were searching for greater knowledge. In the 1800s, many people were exploring a variety of medical related conditions, but Louis Pasteur stands out as an example. Pasteur identified the microbes responsible for the diseases anthrax and rabies. To confirm what he saw under the microscope, he injected other animals with the organism. He also used rabbits to find an attenuated rabies agent that he used as a vaccine against the disease. Since that time, the numbers and types of animals used in the search for cures to medical diseases and conditions have expanded greatly. Until the late 1800s, there were no laws anywhere that governed how animals were used in research or vaccine production.

Events leading to the passage of the U.S. Animal Welfare Act

The first national law to regulate animal experimentation was passed in Britain in 1876—the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876. This bill created a central governing body that reviewed and approved all animal use in research. After that, there were numerous countries in Europe that adopted some regulations regarding research with animals.

Although there were state initiatives to protect laboratory animals, it was many years until there was a National law to protect laboratory animals in the U.S. In the U.S, according to Stevens (1990), there were a number of states that passed anti-cruelty laws between 1828 and 1898. 14 states exempted animal experiments. It is interesting to note that Stevens mentioned that there were only two times when anti-cruelty laws were invoked on behalf of laboratory animals. There were also numerous bills proposed and enacted in various places, but there was no U.S. Federal legislation passed until 1966. (See Stevens (1990) for the legislative history regarding animal welfare and the passage and amendments to the U.S. Animal Welfare Act (AWA) up through 1990.)

Since its inception in 1966, the U.S. Animal Welfare Act (AWA) has been shaped and expanded upon by political and social influences. The AWA became the first Federal law protecting the welfare of laboratory animals and brought the issue of stolen pets to the forefront of animal welfare concerns. Amendments to the AWA enacted in 1970, 1976, 1985, 1990, and 2002 refined standards of care and extended coverage to animals in commerce, exhibition, teaching, testing, and research. Each amendment is unique in its changes and the events that inspired its passage.

Early events in the development of the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 are very interesting and illustrate how a law gets proposed and eventually passed. Congress discussed laboratory animal welfare in the early 1960s, but there was not enough interest to pass legislation. The tipping point happened after very revealing articles on the procurement process for finding and delivering dogs for biomedical research appeared in two popular magazines—Life and Sports Illustrated. The articles stimulated such a public outcry that Congress eventually wrote and passed the first Laboratory Animal Welfare Act in 1966.

The first article, written by Coles Phinizy in the November 29, 1965, issue of Sports Illustrated, details the story of Pepper the Dalmatian as. Briefly, Pepper disappeared from the yard of her home. Shortly after the disappearance, the owner, while in a hospital recovering from a heart attack, recognized his missing dog in a picture taken of an animal dealer’s overcrowded truck featured in a local newspaper. The owner’s wife and children tried to locate and retrieve the dog but were denied entrance to the “dog farm.” U. S. Representative Joseph Resnick (D-New York) was contacted and was also denied entrance to the dog farm. Unfortunately, Pepper had been euthanized in an experimental procedure at a New York hospital and thus never returned to her owners. On July 9, 1965, Rep. Resnick introduced H.R. 9743, a bill that would require dog and cat dealers, and the laboratories that purchased the animals, be licensed and inspected by the USDA. A hearing was held on September 30, 1965, and similar legislation was sponsored in the Senate.

In 1966, Life Magazine published an article documenting the housing conditions at animal dealer (dog farms) facilities. The article titled “Concentration Camp for Dogs” featured pictures of skeletal dogs and described the neglectful conditions which the investigative journalists and Maryland State Police found at a Maryland dog dealer’s farm. As a result of these articles, the public lobbied Congress to pass a Federal law that would institute animal housing and care standards. It is interesting to note that this one article on conditions in the dog dealing business, stimulated more letters to Life than any of the Vietnam or civil rights stories (Stevens 1990). Congress was spurred into action and on August 24, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law (P.L. 89-544).

The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 (Public Law 89-544)

The 1966 act set minimum standards for the handling, sale, and transport of cats, dogs, nonhuman primates, rabbits, hamsters, and guinea pigs held by animal dealers or pre-research in laboratories. Furthermore, in response to the tragedy of Pepper, dog and cat dealers and laboratories were required to be licensed and to provide identification for their animals as a matter of theft prevention.

The 1966 law, which was primarily concerned with dogs and cats, was restrictive in regards to its coverage of the types of animals and regulated facilities. Research facilities only had to register if they received government funding and the dogs or cats had to have crossed state lines. Dealers selling to registered research facilities had to be licensed if the dogs and cats being purchased or sold by the dealers crossed state lines. To complicate matters, once a research facility was registered, then nonhuman primates, guinea pigs, hamsters, and rabbits also came under USDA’s jurisdiction. Furthermore, the law limited the USDA’s authority within the research facility to only animals being held “pre-research.” Dr. Dale Schwindaman, the chief of research on the Veterinary Services staff at the time, described it as just going “up to the laboratory door” (Schwindaman 1996) rather than actually experiencing the conditions for the animals inside.

1970 Amendment to the Animal Welfare Act

Although the original Act was an invaluable first step, it began to be clear that it was not comprehensive enough. With the signing of the 1970 amendments by President Richard Nixon on December 24, 1970, USDA’s jurisdiction expanded by changing the definition of ‘animal’ and the scope of animals covered. First, the AWA was expanded to include all warm-blooded laboratory animals, removing the earlier narrow focus on six species. Furthermore, coverage no longer depended on the animals crossing state lines. In-state and interstate transported animals all now fell under USDA’s oversight. There was a requirement for the appropriate use of anesthetics and other tranquillizing drugs during animal experiments. The 1970 amendments addressed an increased understanding of the importance of animal welfare and the need for minimal standards to care for research animals.

1976 Amendment to the Animal Welfare Act

Similar to its two predecessors, the 1976 amendments resulted from public concern over animals in fighting ventures and transportation of animals. In 1974, Congressman Thomas Foley held hearings which shed light on the underground dog fighting business. An undercover film taken at one dog-fighting event revealed the extreme violence of these gambling or entertainment events. Despite the massive public demand for the passage of an amendment to the AWA, it did not go through until it was re-introduced in 1975. On April 22, 1976, the bill was signed into law by President Gerald Ford. In addition to outlawing the interstate or foreign transport of animals used in fighting ventures, the bill also refined standards for transporting animals and expanded upon the definition of a “carrier.” “Carrier” now meant any enterprise transporting regulated animals and required these transporters to be licensed. In the early 1970s, there were reports of several graphic deaths of animals during transportation due to insufficient ventilation or extreme temperatures. The 1976 amendment established standards for shipping containers, feed, water, rest, ventilation, temperature, and handling in order to promote better care for animals during their transport.

Improved Standards for Laboratory Animals Act as part of the Food Security Act of 1985

By the early 1980s, the animal welfare/rights movement was gaining momentum in the United States. In 1981, Alex Pacheco, cofounder of the newly formed group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”), volunteered in the research laboratory of Dr. Edward Taub at the Institute for Biological Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. He documented numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act, eventually prompting the Montgomery County police to seize 17 monkeys from the laboratory. The case, often referred to as the Silver Spring Monkey case, led to many legal trials and was highly publicized in newspapers nationwide (Carlson 1991). Congress held hearings before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Science, Research and Technology in October 1981, prompted in part by Pacheco’s documented claims of animal mistreatment and the public concern that followed (Brown 1997). Between 1981 and 1984, several bills were introduced into the House and Senate regarding the care of animals in research laboratories. Eventually Senator Robert Dole of Kansas included Amendment No. 904-- the Improved Standards for Laboratory Animals Act--as part of the Food Security Act (Farm Bill) of 1985 and it was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on December 23, 1985.

This new amendment provided major changes regarding the scope and breadth of USDA’s jurisdiction over animal welfare in the laboratory, testing of animals, animals used in higher education (e.g. not food or fiber related courses), animals on exhibit and captive marine mammals. It also dealt with the care and management of laboratory animals. Exercise requirements for dogs and psychological well-being for primates were added to the minimum standards for these animals. This bill mandated the establishment of Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) to oversee animal care and use at registered institutions. Furthermore, IACUCs were given responsibility for ensuring that alternatives to animal use were explored when experiments involved pain or suffering or were unnecessarily duplicative in nature. The AWA also bolstered the strength of the USDA when assessing fines or investigating dealers and researchers. Congress established an information service at the National Agricultural Library to provide resources to both the general public and the research community on the care and welfare of animals and alternatives as defined by the 3Rs (reduction, refinement and replacement). This service eventually became the Animal Welfare Information Center (AWIC).

1990 amendments to the Animal Welfare Act

From the beginning of the Animal Welfare Act, stolen pets have always been a factor in moving legislation. Although it was not as much of an issue in the amendments of 1970, 1976, and 1985, pet theft and protection was far from being a dead issue. Several documented instances from 1976 to 1986 detailed how “class B” dealers and “bunchers” would collect pets through deception or theft in order to sell them to research facilities for a profit. As concern mounted, the Pet Theft Act was first introduced in Congress in 1988. Despite not being passed in 1988, the hearings and negotiations about the proposed bill provided enough support for it to be included in the 1990 Farm Bill. This amendment created a requirement that all dogs and cats be held at shelters for at least 5 days before they are allowed to be sold to research facilities. The purpose of this requirement is two-fold; first, to allow pet owners or prospective owners the chance to claim/adopt the animal and second, to ensure that the proper documentation and record keeping is performed in order to verify that the animals were obtained legally. By giving owners a chance to claim their animals and by requiring documentation detailing the source of the animal, Congress bolstered the protection of pets from theft or crime.

2002 amendments to the Animal Welfare Act

Although the AWA was modified in the 1970 amendments to allow coverage of all warm-blooded animals, the Secretary of Agriculture administratively excluded rats, mice, and birds from the definition of animal in the accompanying regulations. The USDA was sued and in 2000 agreed to amend the definition of animals in the AWA regulations and cover rats, mice and birds in addition to the species already covered. In 2002, Sen. Helms added an amendment to the AWA in the Farm Bill, signed by President George W. Bush on May 13, 2002, that redefined the term animal in the law to match the current definition in the regulations. This change means that the definition of animal in the AWA excludes "birds, mice of the genus Mus, and rats of the genus Rattus, bred for use in research" from the definition of animal. By changing this term, the USDA does not have the authority to regulate animals excluded by the new definition. However, the USDA General Counsel has determined that the uses of these animals for other purposes are now covered by the law.

2007 amendments to the Animal Welfare Act

Most recently, President George W. Bush signed the Animal Fighting Prohibition Act on May 3, 2007. This bill amends the AWA to prohibit knowingly selling, buying, transporting, or delivering, in interstate or foreign commerce, a knife, a gaffe, or any other sharp instrument for attachment to the leg of a bird for use in an animal fighting venture.

Note: This document will be updated as new bills are introduced or discussed in Congress. Furthermore, as more documents become available online, web site links will be added or updated.


Brown, Congressman G.E. (1997). 30 Years of the Animal Welfare Act. Animal Welfare Information Center Bulletin 8: 1-2, 23.

Carlson, P. (1991). The Great Silver Spring Monkey Debate. The Washington Post Magazine (February 24): 14-19, 28-31.

Paul, P. (1986). Some Origins of Laws and Legal Codes Regarding Animal, Part I. Community Animal Control. 5(1): 13, 21-22.

Paul, P. (1986). Some Origins of Laws and Legal Codes Regarding Animal, Part II. Community Animal Control. 5(3): 32-34, 40.

Paul, P. (1986). Some Origins of Laws and Legal Codes Regarding Animal, Part III. Community Animal Control. 5(6): 16, 26-28.

Schwindaman, D. (1996). 1970 Amendments to the Animal Welfare Act. In: Animal Welfare Act: Historical Perspectives and Future Directions Symposium Proceedings, September 12, 1996, M. Kreger, D. Jensen, and T. Allen (Editors), WARDS: Washington, DC, p. 31-32. Online:

Stevens, C. (1990). Laboratory Animal Welfare. In: Animals and Their Legal Rights, Animal Welfare Institute: Washington, DC, p. 66-111.