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By Dareh Gregorian

Government scientists announced Tuesday that they're pulling the plug on a research program that's resulted in the deaths of thousands of cats.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Services lab had been infecting cats with toxoplasmosis and then euthanizing them since 1982 as part of its effort to combat the foodborne illness.

The USDA's announcement comes two weeks after NBC News reported on a study that found ARS scientists had bought hundreds of dogs and cats from "Asian meat markets" and then had them euthanized and fed to healthy cats at their Maryland lab.

In its statement, the USDA said its "toxoplasmosis research has been redirected and the use of cats as part of any research protocol in any ARS laboratory has been discontinued and will not be reinstated."

A feline purchased by the USDA facility in Maryland stands on a table in this undated photo obtained by a FOIA request. Felines, like the one shown, are used to breed kittens for taxoplasmosis experiments.WCW

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who'd called the experiments "deeply disturbing," said the agency “made the right decision today, and I applaud them for their willingness to change course. It’s a good day for our four-legged friends across America.”

The authors of the "USDA Kitten Cannibalism" study, the nonprofit White Coat Waste Project, said the gruesome experiments showed the agency had gone far astray from its mission of keeping the U.S. food supply safe.

In its statement, the USDA did not mention the "cat cannibalism" experiments, but it did say that "ARS toxoplasmosis research has reached its maturity and ARS considers the project’s objectives for agriculture achieved. While there is still additional research needed in this area regarding human health, this research area is outside of USDA’s stated mission."

ARS Administrator Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young said, “We are excited for the next chapter of work for these scientists and this laboratory.”

The agency said no cats have been infected with toxoplasmosis pathogens or euthanized since September 2018, and that the 14 healthy cats they still have at the facility are in the process of being adopted by USDA employees.

Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., who'd been pushing legislation aimed at ending the experiments called the Kittens in Traumatic Testing Ends Now Act, said, "I commend the USDA for their decision to end this type of testing on kittens. They listened to the people and responded appropriately to our concerns. This is how our institutions, our government, and our democracy should and must work."

Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., lead co-sponsor of the KITTEN Act, said, “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.”

Anthony Bellotti, the founder of the White Coat Waste Project, which combats wasteful government spending on animal testing and had waged a year-long campaign against the cat experiments, called the move "a historic victory for taxpayers and animals."

"After 3,000-plus kittens killed and $22 million squandered, we applaud the USDA for its wise decision to permanently end its taxpayer-funded kitten experiments and adopt out the survivors," Bellotti said, adding that he was "elated" that "the USDA’s kitten slaughterhouse has finally been relegated to the litterbox of history."