Credit: Courtesy of PAWS | SJVT/FhF

A nonprofit animal rights organization filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the U.S. Agriculture Department, seeking information about experiments during which thousands of cats have been euthanized at a facility in Maryland.

The White Coat Waste Project, a right-leaning advocacy group based in Virginia, filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The group’s “mission is to unite animal-lovers and liberty-lovers to expose and end wasteful taxpayer-funded animal experiments,” according to the lawsuit.

Earlier this year, the group released graphic documents obtained from the USDA that said about 100 cats are killed each year at a facility in Beltsville after being intentionally infected with a parasite that can cause toxoplasmosis. The disease, transmitted in contaminated meat, can cause miscarriages and birth defects in humans.

The cats, whose feces is inspected for the parasite, are euthanized with a shot of ketamine to the heart two weeks after being infected, according to an “animal use protocol form” that explained the procedure. “This work cannot be performed in any other species,” the form said, adding that the experiments seek “sources of Toxoplasma infection for humans and food animals … to plan control strategies, including development of a vaccine.”

“A total of 2,988 cats have been used in these research efforts that began in 1982,” USDA administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young wrote in a response to an inquiry from Congress in May.

In its suit, the White Coat Waste Project says the USDA is blocking a Freedom of Information Act request for more information about the research, including veterinary records for all “cats and kittens” experimented on in Beltsville.

The group filed the additional requests in June, the lawsuit said, but “never received any acknowledgment or response.”

“The USDA continues to wrongfully withhold the requested records,” the suit alleges.

An unsigned email from the USDA’s press account, received in response to a request for comment, read: “USDA cannot comment on pending litigation.”

Justin Goodman, the White Coat Waste Project’s vice president for advocacy and public policy, said the USDA is “still using cats for something they should be able to do without live animals instead of adopting them out. It’s institutional inertia and laziness.”

Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minnesota, a co-sponsor of the “Kitten Act,” which would limit experiments on cats, said this was testing “only a government bureaucrat could have come up with in the first place.”

“This has been going on for half a century,” he said. “It’s time to bring this type of practice to an end. The basic details of kitten testing have been hidden.”

Toxoplasmosis is the leading cause of death from foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 40 million people in the United States carry the parasite that causes it, but many never show symptoms.

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