White Coast Waste Project called the "kitten cannibalism experiments mad science run amok"
Credit: White Coat Waste Project via FOIA (2)

Pet Sematary is a scary movie, but this frightening feline reality is much worse.

Back in 1982, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) called the Agricultural Research Service began conducting deadly experiments on domestic cats and kittens. After more than 35 years, the program has finally come to an end, thanks in large part to a taxpayer watchdog group called White Coat Waste Project, whose mandate is to cut federal funding to animal experiments.

According to NPR, the cats were being infected with a parasite called toxoplasma gondii, better known as toxoplasmosis, a disease typically caused by eating undercooked, contaminated meat. After they were infected, the cats were soon put down. Around 3,000 cats have been killed since the program was founded. Justin Goodman, White Coat Waste Project’s Vice President of Advocacy and Public Policy, tells PEOPLE that they first learned of the kitten experiments after obtaining details of the project through the Freedom of Information Act last May.

“The USDA’s kitten cannibalism experiments were mad science run amok that had nothing to do with public health, animal health or food safety,” says Goodman, who also confirms that taxpayers have unwittingly contributed nearly $22 million towards this program.

NBC News reported the cats were being fed bodily tissues and organs of other infected cats, then the newly infected cats were tested upon, parasites were collected from their feces, and they were euthanized and incinerated.

As word began to spread about the nature of this research, the public was outraged. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Mich.) caught wind of it and introduced the “Kittens in Traumatic Testing Ends Now” Act of 2018. Not long thereafter, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) brought a version of the bill to Senate. Thanks to the bipartisan support of animal lovers, today the KITTEN Act has 58 cosponsors among both Democrats and Republicans.

In a statement by KITTEN Act co-lead Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), obtained by PEOPLE, Mast says that more government agencies need to dump their cruel animal research projects once and for all:

“With all the awful reports coming out, it was clear that Americans opposed USDA’s cruel testing on kittens. This is a decisive victory against government animal abuse and wasteful spending,” says Mast. “We’ve worked closely with advocates and scientists to stop the USDA’s abuse and I am grateful to Secretary Perdue for his leadership in ensuring no more kittens are ever used in research and that the last cats remaining at USDA can be adopted. Now, other agencies need to follow suit and put a permanent end to abusive and painful animal testing.”

So, how can animal-loving taxpayers make sure they’re not funding this sort of research? Goodman says it’s critical that people spread the word to friends and family about this governmental animal abuse and let their members of Congress know they don’t want their hard-earned money spent on animal experiments.

“One of the main reasons $15 billion in cruel and wasteful taxpayer-funded animal experiments continue each year is because [these agencies] are so secretive, it’s difficult or impossible for the public to get details,” Goodman tells PEOPLE. “The public should always be skeptical of headlines about animal testing ‘breakthroughs’ because they almost always fail to help to people, squandering billions of dollars and dashing the hopes of millions waiting for cures. Even the US government — the world’s single largest funder of animal experiments — reports that 95 percent of drugs and treatments that pass animal tests fail in humans because they are ineffective or dangerous. Thankfully, agencies including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are leading efforts to develop and use superior alternatives like organs-on-a-chip technology that are faster, less expensive and actually applicable to people.”

But back to the cats: The good news is that the animals currently “left over” in the lab will soon be going home to forever families. Staff at the USDA have volunteered to adopt all 14 remaining cats. “According to the USDA, no kittens have been infected since last September, and the 14 cats being adopted out never were infected,” says Goodman.

The shuttering of this programs mean no further cats should ever be tested on by the USDA, as the ARS was the only USDA sector involved in research on cats. According to NPR, the USDA reports that ultimately this research was successful in reducing the spread of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite in the U.S. The USDA gave a statement that it is “continually assessing our research and priorities and aligning our resources to the problems of highest national priority … Over the course of this research, [the Agricultural Research Service] worked to minimize reliance on cats.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that somewhere around 40 million Americans are infected with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. Most are asymptomatic, but it can pose a serious threat to those with weakened immune systems, including young children and people with HIV. An independent panel advised on the USDA’s currently infected cats, deeming them too much of a risk to public health. It recommended those cats not be placed for adoption, but the non-infected cats were safe to join human homes.

This is good news for the 14 lab cats who will get a second chance at a happy life, but it’s not the typical fate of former lab animals. As Goodman says, “Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, animals are killed at the end of experiments, even when they’re perfectly healthy, like the kittens in the USDA’s lab. (Once cats are infected with the parasite, they still remain healthy and become completely naturally immune in about two weeks.) Our organization has been working with Congress since last year to ensure that animals have a chance to be adopted out or retired to sanctuaries — depending on the species — when they’re no longer needed for taxpayer-funded experiments.”

For example, a 2018 WCW campaign supported by Dr. Jane Goodall convinced the FDA to stop nicotine addiction experiments on squirrel monkeys and send them to a sanctuary. Another active campaign is focused on ending dog experiments at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Click here for more information about the kitten experiments, as well as White Coat Waste Project‘s other important campaigns.