Over 65,000 dogs are currently living in research laboratories in the U.S. alone. They spend their days and nights in metal cages without ever seeing the sun or feeling earth beneath their feet. The only break to this boredom occurs when they are brought into an experiment where they may be forced to endure extreme pain, injections of toxic chemicals or even cancer cells, or experimental surgical procedures, mostly funded by taxpayer dollars.When they are too sick or too old to continue, they are disposed of.
Beagle Freedom Project began in December 2010 when animal rights attorney and activist Shannon Keith received information that “experimentally spent” beagles who were used for animal experiments in a research lab were to be given a chance at freedom. She sprang into action and the Beagle Freedom Project was born.
Sniff and Barkens talks to Kevin Chase, the Director of Operations for Beagle Freedom Project, about the dirty secret that is animal research and what it takes to rescue them:
Sniff & Barkens: Tell us about how Beagle Freedom Project started and how it has grown.
Kevin Chase, Operations Director of the Beagle Freedom Project: Beagle Freedom Project (BFP) was founded in 2010 as a mission of the 10 year old non-profit Animal Rescue Media and Education (ARME). A laboratory in Southern California contacted ARME asking if we could take two “experimentally-spent” research beagles, otherwise they would be euthanized.
ARME quickly said yes and arranged for the safe transport of the two dogs. We decided to film the rescue and document the first steps of real freedom for these two lucky survivors. The video, which captured the dogs apprehensively and cautiously taking those first steps out onto the grass, in the sunshine, smelling fresh air, and awkwardly playing with each other before their atrophied muscles were quickly exhausted, went viral. The video underscored the heart-breaking nature of using dogs like these in experiments, and the heart-warming possibility that they could, and must, be rescued.
ARME then formed a mission called the Beagle Freedom Project,which is exclusively devoted to the rescue, rehabilitation, and rehoming of animals saved from laboratory languish. Our namesake animal, the beagle, makes up the majority of animals saved, (as they are the breed of choice for experiments due to their friendly and docile nature), but are not the only animals liberated. Over the last 5 years, this non-profit has rescued nearly 600 laboratory survivors from beagles, hounds, cats, bunnies, guinea pigs, goats, ferrets, ponies, fish, and giant sows. Beagle Freedom Project has rescued and placed animals in 36 states and 7 countries and is the largest and most prolific research rescue organization in the world.
S&B: Are most people unaware that dogs are still being experimented on in laboratories?
Kevin: Most people are not aware that dogs and cats exactly like the ones 60 million Americans share their homes with, are still being used, abused, and killed in US laboratories. The most common response BFP gets after a high profile rescue operation is, “wait, they are still doing this to dogs and cats? Wasn’t this outlawed?”
The animal research industry survives today because of this deliberate secrecy.This is the reason they so vehemently discourage labs from letting their animals be adopted once the testing is done and the very reason BFP exists to shine a light on the topic. The beagles and other animals are the public ambassadors reminding everyone that they are not just abstract furry little test-tubes, but individuals deserving of sensitivity, safety, and a chance at a real life.
S&B: Where do the dogs come from?
Kevin: The majority of dogs in research laboratories come from special commercial breeders that breed and sell these animals specifically for animal testing. There are a few large scale breeding operations in the country, namely Marshall Farms, Covance, and Ridglan Farms. Beagles are typically sold for $600 to $1000 a piece.
S&B: Many are purposely bred with the genetic defects or diseases that labratories want to study. How do you deal with those health issues once the dogs are freed?
Kevin: Beagle Freedom Project will take any dog, from any lab, at any time, and in any condition. We don’t mind if the beagles are shy or nervous and we certainly don’t mind working with them if they present a physical difficulty. While we don’t advocate prolonging the suffering of any animal if the testing they endured left them sick or injured, we are still comfortable taking them on knowing that while their lives may not be long, they may still enjoy a few good months, weeks, or even days. Our opinion is that is more humane to let them enjoy their remaining days in the warm, comfortable embrace of a family, than alone and scared in a laboratory basement where they will never have even known a name.
S&B: What has to happen before a lab will agree to free their dogs?
Kevin: It is a voluntary process to let these dogs be adopted in most states, although our signature piece of legislation ‘The Beagle Freedom Bill’ has become law in California, Nevada, Minnesota, and Connecticut, mandating these post-testing adoption opportunities. Typically, a lab that works with Beagle Freedom Project asks that we assume all liability, transportation arrangements, veterinary costs, and that we sign a non-disclosure agreement. We offer these services to any lab and are more focused on the safety and liberation of the survivor animal rather than pushing the lab to absorb any cost or extra work that could dissuade their participation.
S&B: What can foster families expect when taking a beagle from the lab to a home?
Kevin: Each dog is different, but the typical first day of freedom for a beagle can go one of two ways. There are some dogs that are just so excited to be free that they seem to instantly leave their past behind them and embrace all the new comforts, smells, tastes, toys, and affection. They may be confused by little things like leashed walks, climbing steps, their reflection in the mirror, or the motion on the TV screen – but their curiosity is adorable and they joyfully figure out that life is finally great for them.
The other experience is heart-breaking and requires lots of patience and sensitivity from the foster family. About 50% of the beagles we rescue emerge from captivity suffering some degree of PTSD and do not instantly trust human hands or gestures of affection. These dogs tremble in corners, find safe spots to hide, and take extra time learning to accept the help we provide. Although a great many of these beagles will carry some residual trauma for the rest of their lives, every one of them so far has acclimated to freedom and loves their new lives and families.
Every animal rescued goes directly into foster care to begin the process of acclimatization and learning how to be the dog, cat, bunny, etc. they were meant to be. We, and the adoptive applicants, want and need to understand their emerging personalities before signing off on their forever home. For example, if there is a dog that spooks easily at loud noises, we might avoid a home near an airport or if a dog is young and playful we would insist on a home with a yard and other dogs to run around with. Our goal is provide the best fit for the dogs and the best fit for the family.
S&B: How do you find your fosters and adopters? Do you ever have adoption event days?
Kevin: Beagle Freedom Project is in an unusual position as a rescue organization, having the opposite problem of every other group in the country. Typically there is a supply and demand problem for placing homeless dogs and cats – there are too many animals and not enough homes. BFP, however, has too many homes, but not enough animals being released from labs.
Our applicant database, almost 6000 families strong, is what allows us to say to any lab that we can take any number of animals, from anywhere in the country, and place them in homes nearby. We maintain this database through our website and are always asking for more families to put their name on the list to be ready and able to help in case of a rescue in their area.
S&B: What is it like to see the beagles step on soft grass for the first time?
Kevin: The first steps of freedom are so poignant. While you are overjoyed to see them finally freed and safe, you cannot help but feel pained knowing that they likely went years living in deprivation – that they were scared, lonely, confused, often sick, and unsure of what life really is supposed to be.
S&B: How fun is it to see them finally free to perform normal behaviors like tracking scents and baying?
Kevin: At the end of the day, no matter how long these dogs have been kept in unnatural captivity and no matter what unspeakable pain they have suffered, the labs can never kill off their natural instincts. Nothing gives us greater joy than witnessing these beagles rediscover their famous beagle bay, seeing their nose to the ground on a scent, digging into the blankets to make their bed before they sleep, and relaxing with a long belly rub!
S&B: What is your favorite “happy ending” story?
Kevin: Every single dog rescued has presented his or her own happy ending that is priceless. Nothing beats seeing a senior beagle that has spent upwards of 10 years in a basement cage enjoying his cushy bed in a warm ray of sunshine because you know he appreciates it in a way no other dog could.
For me personally, witnessing my rescue beagle Raymond finally accept a gentle back scratchafter months of training, desensitizing, treats, and patience, moved me to tears. It was a small moment that took months to get to, but understanding just how much courage it took for him to learn to trust me after all the violence he suffered was truly inspiring. Raymond overcame his past and began that pivot towards a future he could look forward too.
These dogs have so much to teach us about resiliency and all of us at Beagle Freedom Project are so honored to be stewards for these remarkable journeys.
S&B: Tell us about the changes in the law you are pushing for.
Kevin: Our signature piece of legislation is the Beagle Freedom Bill.It is a simple but common sense bill that requires laboratories, particularly those funded off tax-payer subsidies, to at least offer the dogs and cats no longer needed for testing up to local non-profit rescue groups for adoption opportunities.
This is a much needed bill. There is a deficiency of law right now, where in there exists no regulation, policy, or law that covers what happens to animals when testing is completed. Whether a dog like my Raymond gets a second chance at life is usually entirely up to the discretion and volunteer time of an animal care technician feeling bad and reaching out to us. These animal deserve better than this, even if you happen to think animal testing is still scientifically necessary.
Fortunately, the public and policy makers are onboard with this bill. In each state we have campaigned in, there is wide bi-partisan support and the public overwhelmingly is in favor. In 2016, we are hoping to pass this bill in Illinois, New York, and Maryland. Individuals living in those states are encouraged to visit our political action page which will direct you to your elected representatives and the bill numbers we need them to support.
S&B: What are the available alternatives to animal testing?
Kevin: There are hundreds of alternatives to animal models and methodologies from in-vivo to in-silico and the most cutting edge and effective new therapies in between. Beagle Freedom Project already actively works with the scientific community and will be putting our money where our mouth is soon, when announcing our mission to help fund the future of modern medicine with research that is not only humane but far more effective for human health.