During these times of political conflict and division, one issue that draws bipartisan and nearly universal support is animal welfare. For decades, the efforts of animal welfare advocates to fight animal cruelty and suffering have been supported through the help of an enduring ally, but that ally isn’t a person, agency, or organization — it’s a law: The Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which turns 50 this month.
Though the AWA was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson back in 1966, it continues to evolve to protect more types of vulnerable animals and confront modern challenges to their lives and well-being. While considerable results have been achieved in the last half-century to continue that momentum, further progress is still needed to provide animals with the protections they deserve.
One of the most heinous forms of cruelty addressed by the AWA is animal fighting. In 2014, Congress amended the AWA to increase penalties for animal fighting, including making attendance at an animal fight a federal offense, and imposing additional penalties for bringing a child to an animal fight.
Elevating the seriousness of this cruel blood sport helped pave the way for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to strengthen federal sentencing guidelines for animal fighting earlier this year, including giving judges the tools they need to ensure criminal sentences for animal abusers reflect the depravity of their crimes.
While these and other AWA measures are helping eradicate illegal activities like animal fighting, the AWA still does not cover the vast majority of animals used in research, nor the billions of farm animals raised for food across the country.
The loophole excluding farm animals used for agricultural research — including taxpayer-funded research conducted by the USDA — was highlighted when a 2015 New York Times investigation revealed abhorrent abuse and lax oversight at the USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC), a federally funded facility conducting experiments to benefit private industrialized agriculture.
To stop these cruel practices, a bipartisan team of lawmakers introduced the Animal Welfare in Agricultural Research Endeavors (AWARE) Act, which seeks to extend AWA protections and welfare standards to farm animals used in agricultural research at federal facilities such as USMARC.
Another shortcoming of the AWA is its notoriously weak standards of care for dogs in commercial breeding facilities, including puppy mills. Under current AWA regulations enforced by the USDA, dogs in commercial breeding facilities can legally spend their entire lives in small wire-floored cages, stacked on top of one another. Female dogs can be bred at every heat cycle with no opportunities for their bodies to recover.
These conditions are inhumane and unacceptable, which is why a coalition of animal welfare groups filed a petition to urge the USDA to adopt stronger care standards that prioritize the health and well-being of dogs in commercial breeding facilities. We implore the USDA to swiftly grant this petition.
Recent natural disasters have also revealed the need for another key update to the law, dealing with animal considerations in disaster planning. The Animal Emergency Planning Act would amend the AWA to require regulated facilities — including commercial animal breeders, zoos, and research institutions — to create emergency response plans that protect animals in their care during disasters, such as the current flooding in Louisiana.
So much has changed for animals over the last 50 years, but the foundation of animal welfare embodied in the framework of the AWA will enable us to secure a more humane future. Our hope is that the pace of our progress will be accelerated by the actions and voices of principled lawmakers and passionate Americans who no longer tolerate animal abuse and cruelty in any corner of society.
Matthew Bershadker is President and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which celebrates its 150th Birthday this year.
Former Senator Bob Dole was a Congressman in the House of Representatives when he supported the original Animal Welfare Act in 1966, and authored ground-breaking amendments to it while in the U.S. Senate.
Previously published in The Hill