(CNN)A watchdog group filed a lawsuit on Tuesday seeking documents from the US Department of Agriculture about experiments conducted by the agency's research center in Maryland that have allegedly killed hundreds of cats by incineration.
USDA sued over access to documents on deaths of kittens used in research
The group, White Coat Waste Project, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the USDA in June asking for documents about experiments being conducted on cats at the USDA Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. The agency did not respond to the group's Freedom of Information Act request.
The lawsuit was filed in DC District Court. The group is now asking the court to intervene, claiming the agency violated the Freedom of Information Act by failing to comply with its request.
A spokesperson for the USDA Agricultural Research Service said the agency could not comment on ongoing litigation.
The lawsuit was first reported by The Washington Post.
White Coat Waste Project first learned of the experiments after noticing that a USDA database listed that cats were being used in experiments at the Beltsville facility. The group filed a FOIA request in December 2017 about those experiments and received documents in April showing that the agency had been using kittens in experiments for decades, according to Justin Goodman, White Coat Waste Project vice president for advocacy and public policy.
The documents in the initial FOIA request showed that the agency was breeding about 100 kittens a year, force-feeding them parasite-infected raw meat for two weeks, collecting their feces to harvest the parasites and then killing the kittens by incineration after using them in the experiments, according to Goodman.
Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Bishop wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in May after he learned of the experiments on cats in Maryland.
In his letter to Perdue, Bishop wrote that he was "shocked to hear that the USDA, the very organization set out to enforce animal welfare laws and regulations, was treating the life of animals with such contempt."
Bishop introduced a bill, the KITTEN Act of 2018, that would prevent the USDA from using cats or kittens "in experiments that cause pain or stress." The bill has 49 co-sponsors, five of whom were added on Thursday.
The Senate also included language in the most recent agriculture appropriations bill urging the USDA to ends its use of cats in experiments. The appropriations bill passed in August.
"The Committee strongly supports USDA research but is concerned about the use of cats in painful and terminal laboratory experiments," the bill states. It also asks that the USDA "consult scientific and veterinary experts about the feasibility of implementing alternatives to the use of cats" in research.
White Coat Waste Project is seeking several records regarding the experiments, including complete veterinary records for all the cats and kittens used in the experiments, project budgets and internal emails discussing the experiments.
The group says its mission is "to unite animal-lovers and liberty-lovers to expose and end wasteful taxpayer-funded animal experiments," according to court documents.
A USDA Agricultural Research Service spokesperson said the estimate of 100 cats per year used in USDA research was a "serious overestimation" and called cats "essential to the success of this critical research."
"The Agricultural Research Service-USDA (ARS) makes every effort to minimize the number of cats used to produce eggs required to research one of the most widespread parasites in the world. The cats are essential to the success of this critical research," the spokesperson said.