By Frederic J. Frommer.

WASHINGTON (AP)--The decision by Northwest Airlines to stop shipping day-old chicks as mail because too many were dying has set off a battle pitting animal rights activists against Midwest senators and farmers.

Sens. Charles Grassley, R-IA, and Russ Feingold, D-WI, are heading an effort to force Northwest to resume the service, saying family farmers and other businesses depend on cheap delivery of millions of baby chickens, game birds and other fowl.

"Without this access, many of these hatcheries and farms would be forced to go out of business," Feingold said.

The Humane Society of the United States is fighting the effort, saying it's cruel to send the birds in the mail, where they are given no food or water.

"Baby chicks are not luggage or mail," said Wayne Pacelle, a lobbyist and vice president with the organization. "They are newborn animals, highly vulnerable to rough handling and the rigors of air travel."

Postal regulations categorize chicks as "perishable matter," a description Northwest said was all too accurate: Up to 30 percent of the birds were dying en route, according to the airline. So effective Sept. 1, Northwest said it would only accept the birds as "cargo," requiring them to be shipped similarly to cats and dogs.

The more expensive cargo shipments are carefully tracked by the airline, which can make special arrangements for live animals. Northwest has offered to accept the birds as mail only if it can charge higher rates, which the airline says would allow it to provide the chicks with similar care.

While Delta, US Airways and Continental still accept the chicks as mail, many farmers in the Midwest have no option other than Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines. They say they can't afford cargo rates that are about triple the mail rates.

Postal regulations prohibit the mailing of most other animals, such as cats and dogs.

Grassley and Feingold have tacked an amendment onto an appropriations bill requiring all airlines to accept day-old chicks as mail. Airlines that do not ship any animals would be exempted.

Northwest has not taken a position on the bill. Spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said the airline, which is struggling financially in the wake of the terrorist attacks, wasn't making money offering the service.

"Our employees have engaged in extraordinary efforts to rescue the lives of chicks, including wrapping them in blankets and heating them in management offices," he said, "and all along the company has been compensated at the same rate as if this is a Christmas card."

Bill Mac Farlane, owner of the Mac Farlane Pheasant Farm in Janesville, Wis., says if Northwest doesn't resume the service he could go out of business.

"My number one core value is humane treatment of our birds," said Mac Farlane, who mails about 600,000 chicks a year, mostly for hunting clubs. "We want the birds to be alive _ that's how we get paid. Who would care more about these birds?".

But Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, a Virginia-based animal rights group, said hatcheries that mail chicks consider them merchandise, not living things.

"They don't expect every bird to arrive alive," Davis said. "They factor that into their profit margin."

United Airlines and American Airlines stopped shipping animals as mail years ago. Both were negotiating with the Postal Service to resume limited shipments when the Federal Aviation Administration banned mail delivery on passenger flights after the terrorist attacks.

The FAA now is allowing mail delivery of items 16 ounces or less. Although the FAA has issued no timeline for lifting the restriction on heavier mail, Grassley and Feingold are moving ahead with their bill under the assumption it eventually will be rescinded.

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