In a typically hardscrabble corner of southeastern Wyoming, a surprising series of sophisticated yurts and yards punctuate 1,000 dusty acres. Even more surprising, the yurts are home to very special cats and dogs, a number of whom until recently had never felt the grass beneath their feet.
“Some dogs are more adjusted than others, requiring very little time here,” said Karen Straight, Ph.D., co-director of Kindness Ranch, a sanctuary that rehabilitates and seeks to place dogs, cats, horses, pigs and sheep who have been retired from laboratories. “Others may need an extended stay, as they may be unaccustomed to walks, toys and cuddles, and time will help them adjust to their new life outside the laboratory,” she added. Founded in 2007, the not-for-profit Ranch reaches out to those in research facilities who might be open to the idea of re-homing animals following their use in research, rather than euthanizing them.
“We’re starting to build relationships,” Straight said, noting that in some cases it has taken facilities well over a year to return her calls, if they did at all. As an outreach and marketing tool, she and co-director Matt Farwell developed a book of photographs to illustrate who they are and what they do.
With research laboratories highly secretive of their work and fearful of exposure and backlash, there is reluctance to venture into a formal adoption program for some of their animals. Some laboratories prefer to arrange adoptions directly to select individuals, while others work with local animal shelters, sanctuaries and other rescue organizations. Sometimes efforts stall in the initial outreach to research facilities. Once a relationship has been forged, however, anonymity and discretion are the cornerstones of an association of this nature.
From Lab to Lap
Purpose-bred dogs—those who go directly from a breeder to the lab—also present particular re-homing issues. Carolyn Sterner, director of Cascade Beagle Rescue-East, had been warned that these are “wild dogs” due to their behavioral conditioning in laboratories. For example, “...drinking out of a bowl can be a new experience to them because of automatic water dispensers in labs,” she explained. “They are not familiar with stairs, having the run of a house or being housebroken.” But she was determined to dispel the myth that these dogs were too unruly to live in homes. She has successfully placed over 75 beagles retired from labs - including adopting one herself. The Laboratory Beagle Adoption Division of Cascade Beagle Rescue-East run by Sterner helps research facilities develop their own internal adoption programs. It also fosters beagles who come from research laboratories in preparation for permanent homes when internal adoption programs are not an option. Sterner does this work as a volunteer and her desire is to grow the Laboratory Beagle Adoption Division so that as she says, “through cooperation and respect with the field of biomedical research, these animals can find life and love in their retirement.”
Sterner, a former research facility Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) administrator who learned of the plight of purpose-bred beagles, said that though the process may take time, every facility her group has approached has ended up working with them. She credits such entities as the New Jersey Association for Biomedical Research, which publicly endorses their efforts, with helping to facilitate what could be highly challenging outreach efforts. Sterner also indicated that the manner in which animals are treated at the breeder facility and in the lab, through socialization and enrichment programs, helps ensure both the dog’s well-being and a smoother transition to a home.
Lorraine Bell, research program coordinator for the Office of Laboratory Animal Resources at the University of Colorado, Denver, said that while her current position involves working primarily with rodents, a former role at a facility in Atlanta saw her overseeing internal adoptions for companion animals previously used in research.
“For any successful (internal adoption) program, the most important thing (for the overseer) is to have some experience yourself working with retired laboratory animals,” she said of her prior role. “The laboratory animal is different. The prospective owner needs to be briefed about this, otherwise you’re going to end up with someone who is unprepared,” she explained, affirming that the kind of study for which the animals have been used, and how they behaved inside the facility, impacts prospects for them outside of the laboratory. “We actually went through the IACUC just as you would with any procedure to design the policy and rules governing who could or couldn’t adopt the animals and what kind of questions to ask on the screening questionnaire,” Bell said. She added that if someone had never owned a pet before, they were automatically screened out.
With its own internal adoption program in place, veterinarian Ron Banks, director of the Office of Animal Welfare Assurance at Duke University, said Duke will not automatically re-home all dogs and cats in the laboratory. Criteria for re-homing include determining that an animal is “normal,” though how one defines normal, Dr. Banks said, depends upon how the animal is used. For example if the animal was used for infectious disease study, he or she might carry an infectious agent precluding adoption. If issues are behavioral and training seems possible, the decision to adopt out might be more likely.
A Mouse in the House
Though they are smaller in size, it is important not to forget the birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats and mice. With rats and mice, who are denied protection under federal law and comprise more than 90% of the animals used for research and testing, there should be many good candidates for adoption. What is needed is for institutions to decide to devote some energy to it and for the public to be made aware of the availability of these animals for adoption. An adjustment to life outside the laboratory can typically be done with ease and these animals deserve to be in loving homes too. In the case of Bear, a rabbit used in antibody production, the adjustment was more than successful. When the facility manager who had cared for Bear for 5 years learned he was to be euthanized, she stepped in and took him home. Before long, he was curling up with the family’s two cats and was protectively guarded by the dog. His worst behavior: loudly thumping for his nightly carrot. He passed away at home at the age of 13.
Technicians Step Up
According to Kindness Ranch’s Karen Straight, it’s an uphill battle for many sanctuaries and rescue groups to acquire laboratory animals because few laboratories actually release them at the end of the research cycle. Despite the reluctance of many research facilities to make animals available for re-homing, routinely euthanizing animals carries its own burdens. According to Duke’s Dr. Banks, the practice “is not an easy thing for institutions, no matter who they might be.” Many technicians become emotionally involved with their research animals after spending months or years together in day-to-day interactions. In fact, according to Straight, “What I have encountered is that there are some individuals who are putting themselves at risk in getting these animals released, both personally and professionally.” Technicians who work with the animals may well adopt some of the very animals they have come to know or arrange for family or friends to do so, but this is certainly not always possible. Nonetheless, it is deeply encouraging for the technicians to see animals formerly in their care head off to a new beginning outside the laboratory. Sterner of Cascade Beagle-East says with that in mind, her organization sends the labs updates on how the dogs are doing, not only in foster care, but after they are adopted out, reinforcing the efforts of those concerned enough to put themselves on the line. “This really keeps them going,” she said.
While re-homing procedures may vary for internal adoption programs, rescue groups and sanctuaries, there is little doubt that the effort made to provide a life for animals outside the laboratory is a responsibility that can be undertaken with highly encouraging and satisfying results.