Animal research, animal rights, ballot initiatives: Past, present, future?

Among the US election outcomes November 6th was one that attracted little attention relative to the many significant and consequential competitions for local, state, and national legislative offices.

Mount Horeb resolution concerning dog and cat research and testing

In Mount Horeb, a small community in Wisconsin, ballots contained a binding resolution opposing breeding dogs for biomedical research. As reported by Phoebe Petrovic for Wisconsin Public Radio:

“The most divisive item on the ballot this election season in the rural village of Mount Horeb isn’t about candidates. It’s about dogs. … Residents will soon vote on whether to designate places that breed, sell, or use dogs or cats in research as a public nuisance, and the issue has divided the village.”

As Speaking of Research has written previously, the weeks leading up to the election, the ballot measure was heavily promoted via yard signs, billboards, public debates, and coverage in social media as well as the local news.

Yard sign in the Village of Mount Horeb, October 2018

In the final vote, the referendum failed. The majority of voters, 59% (2,273 votes), voted against expanding the village ordinance to essentially effect a ban on such breeding facilities, with only 41% (1,591 votes) in favor of the referendum.

Although the referendum failed, the fact that it made it to the ballot and received intense local attention is noteworthy.

Was this the first general election vote on animal research and testing in US history?

The first line of the WPR story: “The most divisive item on the ballot this election season in the rural village of Mount Horeb isn’t about candidates. It’s about dogs.” conveys the contrast between the topics many in the US saw as the central election issues and those that were the focus of groups and individuals advocating for the Mount Horeb referendum on research with dogs. It may be surprising to many that dog research was a more contested issue than the many other divisive issues, such as health care, immigration, gun control, etc., that were at play in a particularly heated election. But it is not without precedent.

In the past, focus on nonhuman animals has appeared as a matter of public concern, interest, and legislation– or even the philosophical centerpiece of political regimes–in ways that are difficult to reconcile with events, legislation, and concern for humans. Of note, for instance, is the fact that the issue of biomedical research with dogs reportedly generated more letters to Congress in 1965 than those voicing concern about the Vietnam War. In fact, those letters opposing research with dogs and accompanying public interest are often invoked as the impetus for passage of the US Animal Welfare Act of 1966. As described by Daniel Enger in Slate, in 1965, US congressman Joseph Resnick

“introduced a dog-napping bill on the House floor. He wanted government licensing for the dealers and laboratories that traded in dogs and cats, and proposed that the theft of these animals be made a federal offense. For Resnick’s colleagues in the House, the bill, born in a moment of outrage on the eve of the holiday weekend, must have seemed almost grotesque in its insignificance. On the very day it was introduced, they approved the Voting Rights Act, while the Senate agreed to add Medicare to the Social Security program. Yet little H.R. 9743—Pepper’s law—would elicit more public engagement in the months that followed than either of these watershed measures. … On Aug. 24, 1966, the president signed a more ambitious version of the proposal into law. But that was just the beginning. What began as a measure to prevent pet theft would soon become the most comprehensive animal-welfare legislation in U.S. history.” [emphasis added]

As conveyed here, the legislation arose through a bill introduced by a member of Congress.  It was not a direct ballot initiative put before the voting public, though its passage certainly reflected public will in the same manner that any legislative measure may reflect public endorsement.

Since the passage of the 1966 Animal Welfare Act (AWA) other federal legislation about captive animals, including not only those in research, but also agriculture and other human use, have been proposed, voted upon, and passed.  The AWA has been amended and expanded. In 1985, the AWA was amended so that federally-funded research with purpose-bred rats, mice, and birds would fall under federal regulation and oversight. In 2000, the US Congress passed the CHIMP Act, which directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to support the establishment and operation of a sanctuary for permanently retiring federally-supported chimpanzees that were no longer involved in research. In 2013, Congress passed an amendment to the CHIMP Act to ensure continued federal funding to provide for the lifetime care of retired research chimpanzees.

In none of these cases, however, was there a direct vote of the American public.

By contrast, state and local ballot measures concerning the care, treatment, and use of agricultural animals is not infrequent. In 2016, for instance, a “proposal to prohibit the sale of eggs, veal, or pork of a farm animal confined in spaces that prevent the animal from lying down, standing up, extending its limbs, or turning around” won approval from a majority of voters in Massachusetts. In the most recent election, Californians voted in favor of Proposition 12, a measure aimed at requiring cage-free housing for veal calves, mother pigs, and egg-laying hens. In Florida, a majority voted in favor to pass Amendment 13, which bans commercial dog racing.

It now appears that the Mount Horeb Wisconsin ballot measure may have been* the first of its kind, a direct vote on a measure aimed at animal research and testing.

Although it failed, the referendum is unlikely to be the last effort to bring questions about animal research directly to voters in other counties and states.  As Speaking of Research has previously written:

“This localized approach for disrupting health research may seem like a new strategy. It’s not. Animal rights groups recognize it is much easier to push legislation at the local level. Those attending the 2018 National Animal Rights Meeting report there was a heavy emphasis on crafting regional legislation.”

As this occurs, it will be more important than ever to encourage serious consideration of the full range of likely consequences of decisions about the use of animals in research. The scientific community and research advocates can and should play an important role in providing facts and engaging in public dialog to support citizens’ informed decisions. To do less is a disservice to society.

Allyson J. Bennett & Sangy Panicker
Speaking of Research

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of their institutions.

*Readers are encouraged to let us know in comments below if they are aware of other US ballot measures directly relevant to animal research or animal testing.


2 thoughts on “Animal research, animal rights, ballot initiatives: Past, present, future?

  1. For clarity – outside groups used Wisconsin’s statute that allows for direct legislation referendums via a petition process. The group used questionable methods to get the petition requirements met. There is no breeding facility within Mount Horeb, though there is one in the neighboring municipality. The referendum was a publicity stunt.

  2. ugh, how DARE the public vote for cages that allow an animal to lay down or extend a limb!! Those crazy animal right nutters must be stopped!!! Meanwhile lets get rid of the animal welfare act! It is only because of crazy animal activists that it came into existence, it is impeding research!!

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