Editor’s note: Melanie DG Kaplan is a freelance journalist and 2021-22 MIT Knight Science Journalism Project Fellow. She is working on a book about her old lab beagle and about animals used in science. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Some nights when I have trouble falling asleep, I count the beagles. As a real, live beagle slumbers peacefully in the crook of my arm—finally freed from the nightmares that once caused it to moan and growl in its sleep—I watch in my mind little tricolor dogs leap over a fence. But recently, when sleep eluded me, my thoughts turned to the 4,000 beagles making headlines across the country.
Over the past year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates breeders who sell animals for research and testing, has reported dozens of animal welfare law violations at one facility. beagle farm run by Envigo RMS in Cumberland, Virginia.
A seven-month secret investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) last year found the dogs had been “stored” in “prison-like” conditions. USDA inspectors found numerous violations, including “live insects, worms, maggots, beetles, flies, ants, mold and feces,” in the dogs’ food and said 300 puppies had died within seven months of “unknown causes”.
In May, the Department of Justice stepped in and filed a lawsuit against Envigo for “failure to meet minimum requirements for adequate handling, housing, feeding, sanitation, and veterinary care” for animals. Envigo responded by denying the lawsuit and saying it would “vigorously defend itself against the lawsuit.” But its parent company Inotiv announced last week that it had reached an agreement with federal officials to shut down the Cumberland facility without paying fines or admitting wrongdoing.
The industry says, of course, that search dogs are generally well cared for. And Envigo states on its site that “(without) animal research, we would not be able to produce the life-changing medicines that improve and save lives around the world.”
The Humane Society of the United States has begun removing the dogs and is working with several groups to provide them with medical care and place them in homes, a process that can take around 60 days.
I have followed this story closely because this beagle in the crook of my arm was born at the Cumberland facility nearly 13 years ago. His name is Hammy.
The facility where Hammy was born, 80 miles west of Richmond, Virginia’s capital, was run at the time by another company that also bred beagles on an industrial scale to sell for commercial purposes. experimental.
I don’t know for sure what the conditions were like when Hammy was there. But I do know that being bred and bred for experimentation in an industrial facility is a terrible way for any dog to start life.
Even in breeding facilities that abide by federal animal welfare laws, puppies and dogs are deprived of many freedoms and denied the ability to exhibit instinctual behaviors. They live in overcrowded kennels and compete for food. They don’t sleep soundly or explore new ground. They cannot choose where to sniff, sleep, or snuggle, as they would in a home where they were cared for by a caring individual or a loving human family.
If you’ve ever experienced the joy of watching a dog get the “zooms” – impulsively and happily sneaking around to burn off excess energy – you should understand that zooms are not possible for a dog confined to a kennel or housed in a laboratory .
When I recently interviewed bioethicist and author Jessica Pierce for a book I’m working on, she told me about studies that examine the psychological trauma experienced by prisoners of war and people who have been in solitary confinement, even for a short period. “It has measurable effects that never go away,” she said.
“You are never the same person as before. I think it’s probably the same for dogs. It damages the psyche beyond repair.
Dogs, which share more than 350 diseases with humans, have been used in research for centuries, including the first known successful blood transfusion, classic Pavlov conditioning studies and space trials. Today, dogs are purchased for research, drug and chemical testing, and advanced medical or veterinary training by universities, pharmaceutical and chemical companies, hospitals, pet food companies, and veterinary schools.
According to the USDA, in 2019 — the most recent year for which reports are available — nearly 60,000 dogs were used at research facilities in nearly every state and the District of Columbia. Beagles are the most used dog breed for research due to their small size and docile temperament, but other breeds are also used.
Much of the research is funded by the federal government. At the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, dogs have been used for studies of spinal cord injury and heart disease because parts of canine anatomy and physiology are similar to ours.
In recent years, several states have implemented laws requiring research facilities to try to offer their dogs up for adoption if they are no longer being used for research.
Some labs prepare dogs for adoption through house training, but that’s not true in all cases. The adopter may not know how the dog was used or if the dog will have any health issues resulting from the experiences. And unfortunately, these adoptions represent only a small fraction of the animals bred for science. Most lab dogs are euthanized so researchers can study their tissues and organs.
So Hammy is one of the lucky ones. The Envigo dogs also dodged a bullet. With the exception of breeding dogs, these 4,000 Cumberland beagles were on track to be sold for testing and research purposes. Instead, they head for homes.
But even though they will never be used in a laboratory, as Hammy was, they have spent every day of their lives in a dangerous, unsanitary and unhealthy environment. And because of that, some of these dogs will have special needs. I say this not to deter anyone from adopting, but to prepare potential adopters for what they might face.
I adopted Hammy in the summer of 2013. For the first few months, he was afraid of everything, including reflections in sliding glass doors and leaves falling on sidewalks.
For years, he shivered when he visited new places or heard sounds like jingles and ringing. He learned to climb stairs, jump on a sofa and search for treats. Over time, he came out of his shell and gained confidence. Today, Hammy is, for the most part, a happy soul. We share a bond that I have never known with any other dog.
If you’re considering adopting one of the Envigo dogs (or another dog that has had a difficult past, perhaps abused, neglected, or abandoned), you might lose your patience for a while. You may wonder how to make your dog feel safe and satisfied. Keep an open mind about the person you are bringing into your life. Some will be confident and adapt quickly. Others will be visibly traumatized and afraid of much of the outside world, perhaps even humans.
Remember that, like us, each dog has a unique story and personality. Take the time to listen to them. You may discover reserves of compassion that you did not know you had. When I adopted Hammy, I remember thinking that every day of his new life was a gift. And I still feel that way, nearly 3,300 days later.
When you adopt your beagle, I hope every day of your life together will also be a gift – for both of you. I hope at night you have a beagle in the crook of your arm. And if you’re staying awake, I hope you’re counting the beagles. There is no sweeter way to fall asleep.