Nine beagles who have spent their lives in cages in a research lab got their first taste of freedom, when they were rescued Wednesday by animal-rights advocates. The rescue took place in California, but has ramifications across the nation, including here in New Mexico where animal maltreatment, neglect and abandonment have also threatened the lives of numerous animals.
More than 67,000 dogs are used annually in U.S. laboratory testing of everything from surgical techniques to industrial chemicals. Attorney Shannon Keith says her volunteer rescue team has to move quickly, because when a research facility calls, it gives them only a day or two to come get the dogs before they're put down.
The beagles aren't sure how to handle their new freedom, according to Keith.
"They stayed in their crates for 15 minutes before they actually took a step outside onto the grass. They were so scared. They had no idea what to do. So, it's bittersweet. We're all crying, but we're smiling at the same time."
Eventually, Keith says, the dogs started running around and their tails started wagging. Rescued research dogs have special needs, however, and many have been de-barked so they can't communicate as a normal dog would. Keith's goal is to rehabilitate them to become adoptable pets.
Beagles are the most common type of dog used in research when larger animals than mice or rats are needed, says Martin Stephens, vice president for animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States. More of them are being rescued, he says, although the cases are rarely publicized.
"Even though you would think that's a good deed to do that, a lot of universities (or) companies don't want to call attention to the fact that they're using dogs in the first place. So, they keep something like this quiet."
Donations and adoptive families are helpful, says Keith, who founded the Beagle Freedom Project in California, one of only a few in the country focused on rescuing research animals. Just as important, she adds, is sending a message to the research industry by purchasing products that are not tested on animals.
"Those products will say either 'cruelty-free' or 'not tested on animals.' Another way to be involved is to actively protest those companies that do still test on animals when they're not required to do so."
The number of dogs used in research has decreased with advancements in technology and testing procedures, said Stephens, who is hopeful that animals will someday not be needed in research at all because better science will have made it unnecessary. In the meantime, groups such as Keith's Beagle Freedom Project say they'll save and rehabilitate as many as they can.
Information on the Beagle Freedom Project is online at https://beaglefreedomproject.org .