The Johns Hopkins University sought yesterday in federal court to intervene in a lawsuit that it fears would force researchers to keep individual government records on millions of laboratory rats and mice.
The regulatory changes sought by animal rights groups would add millions of dollars to the costs of biomedical research at Hopkins alone, university officials said.
"The animal rights groups' true motive in this case is to halt all animal-based research in the United States, with total disregard to the human consequences," said Estelle Fishbein, Hopkins' vice president and general counsel.
If its gambit is successful, Hopkins would gain a voice in the U.S. District Court case in Washington, and a chance to influence any attempt by the Department of Agriculture to settle out of court.
The lawsuit was filed last year by the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation, a consortium of animal rights groups based in Minnesota. The group could not be reached yesterday for comment.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman was named as the defendant. A department spokeswoman declined to comment on the pending litigation.
The animal rights group petitioned the department in 1998 for a change in regulations that exempt laboratory rats, mice and birds from regulation by the department under the Animal Welfare Act.
The effect of the exemption is to relieve research institutions of the burden of USDA record keeping for individual animals - a requirement that applies to larger laboratory animals, including primates, cats, dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits and dogs.
The record keeping is "relatively easy for small populations of monkeys or dogs," said Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea. "But it's harder when you're talking about thousands and thousands of mice."
He said 468 faculty members at Hopkins use 42,000 mice, 3,000 rats and 300 birds in their research.
Investing in new facility
The university is also investing $30 million in a facility designed to breed and maintain up to 140,000 mice and rats, in anticipation of increased demand for genetic research.
O'Shea said generating a government paper trail for each animal would add several million dollars a year in maintenance costs.
The humane care of the lab animals is regulated under rules imposed by the U.S. Public Health Service, he said.
In March 1999, the case went before U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle. Last month, a consortium of research institutions called the National Association for Biomedical Research (petitioned the court to be added as a defendant in the case.
Possible settlement a factor
The animal rights groups and the Department of Agriculture then won a 30-day stay in the case, a bid, according to Hopkins, to seek an out-of-court settlement without the research association's involvement.
The stay expires at the close of business Monday.
Fearful that any settlement would mean a "capitulation," and unacceptable burdens on research institutions, Hopkins decided yesterday to try to intervene before any settlement can be presented to the court.
"Johns Hopkins will not sit idly by and watch this happen," Fishbein said.