Where do laboratory beagles come from?

retired lab beagles

When I tell our beagles’ story–they were part of a group of 200 dogs freed from a NC lab after a Peta undercover video–people always assume that the practice of testing on dogs is illegal. No. As of 2005, researchers were working on 66,610 dogs, according to the USDA. 25 million animals are tested on in the U.S.

After a dalmatian named Pepper was stolen from her family and died in laboratory test, the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 finally put some restrictions on how animals are treated in laboratories. Dogs going into labs may be from creepy “Class B” dealers, who get them from random sources (like backyards, “free to a good home” ads and pounds). Nine Class B dealers still sell dogs as of FY2009.

Because of the longstanding, well-deserved distrust of Class B dealers, scientists moving away from Class B dealers. The National Academy of Sciences said last year that Class B dealers are not necessary for research and just too controversial and icky. Of course, moving from shelter dogs and dealers mainly makes things better for pet owners, not the research dogs themselves.

The big alternative would be not experimenting on animals; ethicists are developing some qualms about human research, too, especially giving people with fatal illnesses sugar pills because they are in the control group. A huge mass of data on disease progression may someday be able to eliminate people and animals dying as part of the control group of experiments. (Many dogs at my beagles’ lab ended in all dogs–control and experiment–being dissected to find out how many heartworms they had.)

The more immediate alternative to Class B dog dealers is something called a Class A dealer, which breeds the dogs specifically to be experimented on in a lab. That’s where my beagles come from. A good portion of the dogs used in labs are beagles because they’re small and docile. The practice is international. Germans call them Laborbeaglehilfe, though they have support groups for the dogs that are often freed after research. These dogs make research more expensive and they also make it less objectionable to the public.

Oddly, whoever bred my beagles probably did a better job at breeding for sweet temperament than your typical American Kennel Club breeder. These dogs are calm and sweet, despite being kenneled, deprived and abused for years. I hate to praise whatever breeder sold them out to research, but they did a great job breeding for a resilient and cheerful spirit. I talked to a guy who says he knows a guy in the animal lab business and they do look for docile, sweet dogs like Huck and Moxie. “I can’t have my girls getting bit,” the lab owner told him. That’s in some ways a better standard for a family pet than AKC beagle breeders, who try to match a bizarre set of physical breed standards, such as

“Head The skull should be fairly long, slightly domed at occiput, with cranium broad and full…Defects–A very flat skull, narrow across the top; excess of dome, eyes small, sharp and terrierlike, or prominent and protruding;…Roman-nosed, or upturned, giving a dish-face expression. Ears short, set on high or with a tendency to rise above the point of origin.”

With Class A dealers (3898 nationwide, I’m not sure how many deal in dogs) you get rid of the risk of some creepy white van man stealing a pet from a backyard. But the Animalearn / American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS) reports they aren’t totally clean either, with a study of their violations over the years, which include massive, dirty kennel facilities with thousands of dogs. And given the USDA’s shoddy kennel inspection records, who knows what it’s really like?

The lab that had Moxie and Huck had been cited by USDA veterinarian F. Binkley for relatively tame infraction like doing animal experiments without written justification, rabbits with sores and chewed up plastic beds. Just three months later, after the Peta report, another inspector miraculously found far worse problems, with widespread illness and injury.

In 2007 the lab listed 487 dogs, so nearly 300 were exterminated for experiments on flea and tick and heartworm drugs since them. While a handful of the dogs were older, most seemed to be young, so I especially wonder how long my three-year-old beagle boy Huckleberry would have lasted. Most of the abuse at the lab–throwing animals around, power hosing them–seemed to me to be the product of sick employees and bad supervision. Though Peta also reported that they had more systemic problems–like not giving the dogs vet care or clean cages.

The lab was owned by Daniel and Helen Shoneshine, who called the Peta footage “disgusting and appalling.” He’s a respected researcher who has studied ticks and the diseases they spread his whole career at Old Dominion. They seem to have made enough money off the lab to buy a Trump condo for about $900,000, but they aren’t using the lab money just for themselves. They funded two lecture series at his university, one on Jewish studies and one on infectious diseases. So, they don’t see themselves as bad people, just scientists working on dog diseases.

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