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From lab mice to graveyards: Five surprising scenes from the U.S. shutdown

Tourists who had hoped to take a boat tour to Alcatraz Island, which is run by the National Park Service, line up for refunds after learning that the tour is closed because of the government shutdown, on Pier 33 in San Francisco, Oct. 1, 2013.


The American government shutdown reaches all the way from Washington to the beaches of Normandy and the outskirts of Manila. But it doesn't extend to Mars.

As 800,000 federal employees went on unpaid leave Tuesday because of a budgetary impasse between Congress and the White House, details of various departments' contingency plans reveal the complexity and scope of the governmental apparatus.

Here are five under-the-radar areas that are feeling the impact of the shutdown:

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CLOSED: The dead
One of the most visible result of what is officially called a "lapse in appropriations" has been the closure of national parks, forests and monuments, including iconic locations such as Yellowstone National Park, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Campers have been given 48 hours to make other arrangements and leave the parks.

Less known is that the American Battle Monuments Commission maintains 24 overseas cemeteries in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Britain, Italy, Panama, Mexico, Tunisia and the Philippines.

The Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, for example, is home to the graves of 17,201 who died in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War.

Staff have been told to close the gates to the cemeteries and post a sign saying, "Due to the U.S. Government shut-down this site is closed to the public" in English and in the local language.

The Normandy American Cemetery, which sits on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, is a special case because it can be accessed through the unfenced parts of the beach. "Visitors will be asked to leave, but confrontation will be avoided," the ABMC said in a memo to staff.

OPEN: A million mice
The U.S. Department of Health operates the Bethesda, Md.-based National Institutes of Health, a network of 27 research centres, including the famous National Cancer Institute.

The NIH would continue to care for current patients but won't admit new cases and would keep "minimal staff to safeguard ... facilities and infrastructure," the agency said in its contingency plan.

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NIH director Francis Collins told the Wall Street Journal that the institutes would have to turn away 200 patients, including 30 cancer-stricken children, who normally would be admitted each week for clinical trials.

The essential NIH staff includes 568 people who have to be retained across the U.S. to tend after lab animals. NIH labs and vivariums house 1.35 million mice, 390,000 fish, 63,000 rats and 3,900 monkeys. "Many of these animals are priceless and have taken generations to breed," the NIH says.

The shutdown will also reduce operations at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, limiting their capacity to respond to contagious outbreaks. While the CDC are mostly known for handling of infectious diseases, the contingency plan underlines that they have an array of other roles, including a program monitoring the health of firefighters and police who were at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

OPEN: Justice in the Pacific
The U.S. Department of the Interior has a sub-unit, the Office of Insular Affairs, which has administrative responsibilities, such as funding health, education and infrastructure grants in Pacific territories like Guam, the American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands.

Two judges of the American Samoa judiciary and 13 employees of the office will remain on duty because "failure to make payments would ... create serious economic disruption in these island nations" and would violate U.S. international treaty obligations.

OPEN: Security
Most of the massive U.S. law-enforcement and security establishment will keep operating.

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Federal courts will continue to hear and decide cases without interruption. All FBI agents and support personnel in the field, as well as agents for the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will remain on duty.

Nearly 200,000 of 231,000 employees of the Department of Homeland Security have been exempted from the shutdown, including employees dealing with border patrols, aviation passenger screening, biometrics, programs dealing with biological and radiological emergencies and fusion centres, where intelligence is integrated and shared.

There is also the Office of the Pardon Attorney, which counsels the president on criminal pardons. It will close. However, its contingency plan says, "if an inmate facing execution in a capital case filed an application for commutation of sentence and appropriations lapsed, it is possible that some OPA employees would be [recalled] temporarily" to investigate.

OPEN: The final frontier
Unlike Homeland Security, most of NASA's 18,250 employees were sent home, with only 549 remaining on duty, mainly to support operating satellites and provide flight control for the International Space Station and its crew of six.

There has been some confusion over whether the impact of the shutdown extends all the way to the craters of Mars. On Monday, the International Business Times quoted a Washington-based NASA spokesman, Allard Beutel, saying that the Curiosity rover now on the surface of Mars would be "put in a protective mode."

However, the mission's lead scientist contradicted that.

"Curiosity's mission, for the time being, will continue as it has been doing. So far so good," John Grotzinger, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology at California Institute of Technology, said in an e-mail to the Globe and Mail.

The rover is controlled from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"Because the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is operated by the California Institute of Technology as a contractor, JPL employees are reporting to work as usual and rover operations are continuing today. Driving and other rover activities are continuing," spokesman Guy Webster said.

With additional reporting by Ivan Semeniuk.

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More


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